Matthew Guay, Capiche‘s founding editor and former senior writer at Zapier.

The problems with email were there from the beginning.

You’d be account documentation, see article to improve, and wish you could tell the author.

For MIT’s programming staff in 1965, that idea led to the apparatus of email. “A new command should be accounting to allow a user to send a clandestine bulletin to addition user which may be delivered at the receiver’s convenience,” wrote the team. “This will be useful for the system to notify a user that … files have been backed-up,” presciently apperception email as a notifications inbox.

More fatefully, they continued: “It will also be useful for users to send authors any criticisms.”

We’ve been trying to escape those automatic notifications and unsolicited acknowledgment belletrist ever since.

The mail command in macOS Terminal

Email was a simple enough concept, with a file name (what became the email subject), a user (what became email addresses), and the message. The MIT team’s angle affected “The proposed MAIL command can be written,” which proved true. Writing the MAIL command only took the summer of 1965.

Decades have passed, though, and email still hasn’t been perfected.

It’s not for lack of trying.

An email app has been part of Microsoft Office since 1993, addition arranged with Windows since ’98. Blackberry’s core affairs point was email on the go. Google’s archetypal April Fools’ Day jokes started with Gmail, which was annihilation but a joke. And 55 years after email first launched, new email apps are still some of the most advancing new software.

Yet email apps die at an alarming rate, enough that it’s almost a rite of access for tech companies to access and then shut down, able new email apps. Google did it to Sparrow, Dropbox to Mailbox, Slack to Astro, Microsoft to Acompli, LinkedIn to Rapportive, Essential to Newton.

“At worst, you’re dead within months. At best, you’re acquired, and then killed off a few years later,” wrote Casey Newton about email apps, after Dropbox shut down Mailbox. “To make a real dent, any new email client would have to be much, much better.”

Email apps are good at being better. They’ve invented or affected some of the most avant-garde ideas in software—even if they can’t always find a business model to match. And those appearance are what live on.

Web apps

Original Hotmail screenshot

Hotmail didn’t invent free email. Juno did, and adjoin all odds still lives on.

Web apps, however, got affected with email.

Hotmail was about the first web app most people used. “With Hotmail, if you know how to surf the web, then you know how to send email,” marveled PC Magazine in an early review. No software to download, a visit to was enough to send and accept emails from any computer.

Web apps helped turn software into a service, paved the way for today’s modern business software that works from every browser and device. But in 1996, that was revolutionary. Hotmail showed us how to work in the future.

Email as a status symbol

Hotmail was also what The Economist called “the father of viral marketing.” Every email sent from Hotmail said “Get your private, free e-mail at” in the footer, a trick aggregate from the iPhone (“Sent from my iPhone.”) to Superhuman (“Sent via Superhuman”) copied. It was the aboriginal software as a status symbol.

Superhuman took that further, as an invite-only email app that costs $30/month. Hotmail’s footer said you got email for free. Superhuman says your time is admired enough to pay for email. Hey’s $99/year email abode says you wanted a better email account enough to switch accounts. Every new exceptional software offering, in a way, ironically has Hotmail to thank for afire the way.

Bundling and unbundling

The aboriginal Microsoft Outlook.

Build a minimum viable product, they say. Focus on one feature, do that better than anyone else.

Not Microsoft. Their addition to email is conceivably the best archetype of bundling in software. Outlook in late 1996 brought aggregate together, with email, contacts, calendar, notes, and even a account in one app.

18 years later, Accompli launched as a mobile email app that again accumulated email, calendar, and acquaintance administration in one. It’s no wonder Microsoft acquired and rebranded it as Outlook mobile.

Modern takes on email like Sparrow, Mailbox, Superhuman, and Hey take the other road. They unbundle email from aggregate else, let you focus only on your messages. Less is more, they declare.

“There are only two ways to make money in business,” says Netscape architect and adventure backer Marc Andreessen: “One is to bundle; the other is unbundle.” That debate is seen most acutely in email apps.

Notifications and always-on software

If Hotmail was the first viral app, Blackberry made email the first addictive mobile app.

Pagers, perhaps, were the first push notifications. Blackberry took them mainstream.

First with its clamshell [email protected] Pager advised only to send emails, then with its aboriginal smartphones, the Blackberry is where email went instant. It’d new emails to your phone, so you’d know as soon as addition messaged you, in an early adaptation of today’s push notifications.

And now, we can’t escape from them. It’s not just email. Seemingly every claimed and business app wants to notify you of new things, making office hours a relic of the past.

It’s yet addition excess that new email apps try to solve. Google Inbox would only notify you about emails at assertive times of the day. Superhuman only notifies you about important emails. Hey only notifies you if accurately requested.

Perhaps these newest attempts to tame notifications in emails will crawl down to other apps that picked up email’s bad habits.

The end of files

Email started out as files, in MIT’s ancient version. You’d write a text file and send it to your aide with stuff for them to fix.

The ancient email apps advised letters much the same. Email took up space, so you’d read it, reply, then delete it. You’d backup your most important letters to neatly organized folders, much like your Word docs and photos.

Then along came Gmail and reinvented the way we think not just about email, but eventually about files themselves.

It started with Gmail’s then-generous 1Gb of free email storage, and the absence button instead of delete. You never needed to get rid of email again. Instead, you could be a agenda packrat, archiving old emails to hide them, then balance them anytime later with a search.

Files and folders meant email could only live one place at a time, like your paper tax return in a file cabinet. Gmail instead used tags to adapt emails—so now, your emailed tax return could live in a and group at the same time.

We quit annoying about anxiously allotment folders for email, quit abetment up .mbox files to alien drives, quit deleting email for fear of active out of space. Then we took those ideas everywhere else. Your Notion notes, Airtable databases, and Google docs work more like Gmail letters than acceptable files.

It was the alpha of the end of files.

Keyboard shortcuts, command palettes, and developer appearance in customer apps

Superhuman screenshot

Gmail didn’t invent keyboard shortcuts; they were the accustomed progression of commands from early terminals. Superhuman didn’t invent the command palette; it, too, was a rethinking of terminal commands, and first showed up in Sublime Text’s code editor.

But both helped popularize the formerly-geeky features. Gmail made keyboard shortcuts simpler; you didn’t need to press CMD N to start a new message, you could just press C instead. Superhuman made sure you’d learn those simpler shortcuts, with alone onboarding. And it made those commands easier to find with a command palette, consumerizing a aforetime developer-focused feature.

And now command palettes are everywhere, from new apps like Height and Notion to new versions of old favorites like Photoshop and even Microsoft Office. A coding app alien them, but an email app made them a must-have.

A new focus on privacy

Hey aloofness screenshot

Like the aboriginal internet service, conceivably it’s only accustomed that email’s where some of the web’s aboriginal debates happen.

Privacy, for instance. The first free email was abominable not only for its price tag, but also for what it asked in exchange. Early Juno and Hotmail signups appropriate not only your name, but also your address, age, gender, conjugal status, occupation, and more. All the more to target you with.

Gmail took away the banner ads and demographic questions but kept the ad-sponsored business model with text ads targeted on the capacity of your emails. Marketers and sales teams wanted to know if their emails were read, so email newsletter and CRM apps added tracking—the email adaptation of Google Analytics or the Facebook pixel that make ads feel like they’re alert to you. Superhuman absitively that was useful enough for everyone, and built in read tracking as a absence email feature.

Then along came the Basecamp Hey team, and said “We think that’s a gross aggression of your privacy.” So when an email tracks opens, Hey lets you know, and blocks it.

The debate is still out on aloofness and tracking, analytics, and ads. But if the winds shift appear more aloofness and less tracking—or if, somehow, read receipts become the norm in every other shared business app—it’s email again, arch the way.

Features for a lifetime

That’s along with all the other tiny things email introduced, including:

  • Flags: Some email’s more important than others—and you need a way to highlight them. Outlook added flags for that, and they stuck, in both email apps and to-do list tools. Even Slack’s starred letters and Notion’s pinned notes owe a bit to email flags.
  • Swipes: What the right-click did for PC software, swipes do on mobile. Email apps are where they got popularized, first with Sparrow then bound followed by Mailbox. You’d swipe to annal or delete messages, file them, and more. And it stuck as the new absence way to add extra appearance to mobile apps.
  • Snoozing: Some letters can wait, so Mailbox added a snooze button to email to hide letters then bring them back when you want. That’s now in Gmail and Superhuman, with agnate appearance like Slack’s assuming up elsewhere.

There’s more, too: Sending later, assuming acquaintance info pulled from social media, accumulation altered letters into a single thread, and more, each of which started in one email app then spread to be a new absence email affection everywhere. It’s far too early to say which Hey email appearance will stick around forever, though acquaintance screening seems a strong contender.

Acompli’s work lives on as the new Outlook mobile app. Rapportive’s team got a second chance with Superhuman. Newton now has a second lease on life. Sparrow’s design and Google Inbox’ ideas afflicted Gmail’s tweaks over the years, perhaps.

Somehow, today’s best-in-class email apps are hybrids, combinations of the best ideas every other email app brought before. It’s hard to brainstorm email after web apps, bottomless storage, notifications, annal search, and a bit of over-the-top self-promotion. Each feature, at one time, was enough to launch a new email app, to argue us all to switch tools yet again.

And then they became software table stakes.


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