How Apple or Google Could Change Email and Save Us All From Drowning

Last week I wrote that we’ve built email upside-down, that is, even the best email clients help us manage the messages after they hit our inbox. They do nothing to prevent the flood from happening in the first place. So, I am proposing we completely rethink the business of electronic communication and build a platform that focusses on the send, not the receive. (Here’s another attempt, more thought experiment, The Perfect Communcations App.)

Here’s my first, rough sketch of a workflow for a client that I am vainly calling m-prime. In naming variables, m-prime means not-m, as in not-mail. And it sounds kinda cool, primal, as in this is the way email was meant to be.

To begin, I suggest we start in a contacts app, not an email client. That’s where we all really start anyway, with the statement, “I need to get a message to John, or Sara, or someone,” not with I want to send an email.

When you open the recipient’s (R’s) contact you need to know R’s preferences for communication: their favourite format and whether they are available in that format. As I hate email and only check twice a day and then only answer within a day or two, I want people to know their best bet is to text me or see me in person, for example. As the recipient, I should be able to set these preferences in my contacts app and have these sync to some cloud so they are transmitted to anyone who has me in their contacts list. My contact entry should also be connected to my calendar so information is also updated dynamically with my free/busy time. We’re half way there with the Do Not Disturb feature in iOS, but instead of just keeping my phone from buzzing after 6:00p, just imagine that this data is given to the sender too, so they know I am unavailable before they hit send.

Here’s what a screen might look like in such a dynamic contact app (X = text,  T = telephone, E = email, F = face-to-face):

I’ll go through this in detail, starting at the top right:

Tap name opens old-style contacts card.

The old contact card is dead–no one keys in a number or an address, they just hit the telephone or address and the smartphone auto dials or displays a map with driving directions. But just in case we do need to read a number to someone, it’s here.

Response time, in hours.

This is set by the recipient and is given to help the sender decide the best way to reach the recipient given the urgency of the message. The face-to-face bar shows IN, OUT, BUSY.

Do not disturb.

The familiar to iOS users icon appears here, showing the sender that the recipient is not taking calls at this time. The sender can, of course, still call, but he or she should expect voice mail.


Notifies sender of key messages before they send. I could never figure out why I had to send and email to find out my friend was away for a couple days. This just creates more incessant email and email is a time suck. A swipe to the left reveal details of the alert.


This could scroll to include other media such as Twitter, Facebook etc.

Tap opens compose.

Tap the icon and the connected app opens with the relevant fields filled in with the recipient’s information. It might be useful to swipe right to give access to boilerplate in some applications such as email.

Dynamic sorting.

The media panels sort dynamically based on the recipient’s preferences and real-time availability taken for calendar and Do Not Disturb status. The idea is to put the best bet for making contact at the top.

Dymanic Colour.

Background colour of the icon reflect the recipent’s preferred formats. This should be location aware so that when the recipient is travelling her normal preference for text, for example, is pushed down a grade given that she is out of her coverage area. The recipient should be able to set these travel preferences.

Tap opens history.

Tap here to see threaded emails, texts, phone records, meeting dates and so on.

They key shift, the new step, in all this is that the recipient has to tell the contacts app when and how he or she wants to be reached and that info needs to move in near real time. Right now, I am a passive recipient and that bothers me. I get it–the old email tech just wasn’t that sophisticated so I had to adapt to it. But it seems to me all this is doable today with a little cloud sync magic. Apple has beautiful control over its environment and so does Google so they ought to be able to pulls this off. They can come and talk to me.

The hard part is in training people to think before they send and to get recipent’s to be more actively engaged in their communciation. Do you think a contacts app like this might help make that shift? Would you be willing to share your availability and communication preferences openly if it would ease the email flood? Does this approach of focussing on the sender make any sense?

Thoughts are welcome!

Addendum: for fun, an alternative layout:



  1. Reply

    […] for their online courses, and summer school prep was under way, not to mention an onslaught of emails… I’d have to say that I had one of the busiest weeks of my life. There simply […]

  2. Reply
    Darren July 11, 2013

    I like it. Probably still need some overall notification letting you know how many unread communications you have, whether they are emails, txt essgaes, etc

  3. Reply
    Khürt Williams July 12, 2013

    Corporate workers may not be able to access corporate email from a personal device. Some do but some people are discovered that it comes with a caveat — control of the device. Once you explain to a corporate worker that the employer — via mobile device management (MDM) software — will be able to track their location etc … decide not to participate.

    My phone is incompatible with the email system of my client. I can’t exchange email once out of the office. Google has already dropped support for Active Sync so you may need to invent another method for me to get corporate emails.

    Employees may also be unwilling to share personal mobile numbers with coworkers and clients/customers.

    Your solution seems more tailed toward consumer email or the needs of your freelance business and doesn’t consider the social implications.

  4. Reply

    […] love Brad Ovenell-Carter’s post, How Apple or Google Could Change Email and Save Us All From Drowning, because we need to recognize that email is very poorly used! The worst offenders are the […]

  5. Reply
    Bill Ferriter February 27, 2014

    Hey Pal,

    Just a quick note to say that I totally dig your thinking here. If people knew my communication preferences, I’d spend less time trying to check all the freaking different communication tools people are using to try to get in touch with me.

    That would be a blessing.

    Hope you’re well…

  6. Reply
    Isaac Leibniz June 5, 2014

    Wouldn’t you say M Prime sounds a little… derivative?

  7. Reply

    […] many, I find email a mixed blessing and a while ago I wrote  post on how Apple or Google could save us all from drowning by creating a platform that focused on the send, not the receive. GMail now has APIs and now this […]

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