There May Still Be Life in the Email Business
Everyone could use a better email client. But the business is a heart-breaker. Get used to a cool, independent app like Sparrow, and some giant megacorp like Google buys it out from under you, and takes its developers off the table. Commit to an open-source app like Thunderbird, and the foundation behind the app will begin to give up on it and orphan you, too. Even Thunderbird’s commercial cousin, Postbox, appears ready to move on.
Yet the optimism of developers springs eternal, or maybe delusional, because they keep writing email apps. There is, still, strong innovation in this market. I’m not sure email is a business, but that’s not stopping the devs.
Case in point: David Baggett, the driving force behind the slightly odd Windows and Mac email client, Inky. He’s working a two-fold plan with this app. First, the Inky email app is different. Its user interface is deceptively light and simple. Visually, it’s reminiscent of the Windows 8 mail client. But Inky does very aggressive automated email management on behalf of the user: It filters, it files, it ranks messages by importance.
To use Inky you have to learn to trust its sorting and filtering. The most recent messages, for example, no longer appear at the top of your inbox. Rather, the most important do. Mostly. The algorithms are still being worked out. Which is a big technology bet.
The second part of his plan is tackling the challenge of the email business itself. The outcome for an email product is far from certain, and the business model of Inky is built with that in mind. While Inky looks like a bare-bones email client, Baggett is not a “lean startup” devotee. Building the foundation of an email company is “at odds with the minimum viable product ideal,” Bagget told me, as an email platform is hard to create (news to me) and has intrinsic value that might not pay back for years. Baggett co-founded the travel data company ITA in 1997; it wasn’t until 2001 that the company got the Orbitz deal that made it a going concern; and it was another nine years before Google bought the company, for $700 million.
So the Inky client app may end up as just a demo front-end on top of a new smart email platform. It’ll take some time for businesses to see the value in that platform, but that’s probably where the money is.
Or not. If Baggett can get people and individuals to buy Inky itself, he’s happy to run the business that way. As he told me, “I gravitate to things where I have a good Plan B, where there are always multiple paths to value.”
We need e-mail clients (CNET)
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