What is email?

by Robin Harris on Monday, 28 May, 2007

Mirrorworlds for the masses
David Gelernter’s company, Mirror Worlds Technologies, tried to put an interface on Windows that reflected how people actually remember and link their experiences, rather than some CompSci metadata accommodation.

The company ceased operations three years ago, and at the time I recall wondering why. Last week, on a concall with CEO Ray Bingham of Arcmail, I started thinking about what email *really* is. Arcmail makes email archive servers and they’re announcing something but there’s an embargo on it for some time – days? weeks? – so that’s probably the last you’ll hear of them from me.

Not what I thought
I always thought it was about communication. And it is. Email speaks to me. It isn’t the email. It is the by-product: an organized record of communication.

Why else do I keep 15,000 emails?

Email is my journal, my archive, my most used and reliable search tool. It tracks relationships. Helps keep cryptically named documents associated with something I do understand. It is easy to organize temporally, easy to search.

I’ve used email for 25 years. Yet I never thought about how I used it. Maybe its because I’m now also IM’ing and video chatting – methods with the immediacy that email seemed to have over snail mail – that I’m starting to get it.

I maintain several on-line identities – StorageMojo, Storage Bits, Data Mobility Group and several more email addresses.

My email client is where they all come together.

It is the original online social network
And we treat it like it is email. It is identity. In a very real sense it is who we are.

Email: your personal metadata generator
Email adds value because it adds context – metadata – to raw files and communications. Context that is human readable and human memorable. That fits the relational database in our brains, not our computers. That provides metadata that people use, like names, conversations, topics and words that mean something.

Ray made the point that email servers, like Exchange, are just email servers. They aren’t designed to handle multi-gigabyte mailboxes, frequent individual searches or company-wide searches. Arcmail is.

Fear trumps greed
I pointed out some of the business advantages of big mailboxes as a business tool to Ray. He responded that he agreed, and that he’d tried some of those messages. Yet the chief buying motivator is fear of lawsuits, not the business process advantages.

Thought leadership, anyone?
I’ve come to believe that innovation happens regularly where ever people confront problems. What changes is our individual and cultural receptiveness to innovation. I think we may be getting ready to accept that email is one of the most valuable organizational tools we use and that there could be new ways of extracting business value from it.

The StorageMojo take
Email isn’t electronic “mail,” any more than cars are “horseless carriages.” Email not only goes faster than snail mail, it also provides its own infrastructure that makes it uniquely accessible and valuable.

Instead of thinking of email “clients” how about “communication clients” where email, chat, downloads, uploads and VOIP contacts are logged and are reviewable and searchable. I’d love to be able to go to one place to search my email, Adium and Skype chats, review my downloads – Safari’s 20 download history is inadequate for me – uploads and surfing history. All the information exists, but only in stovepipes. I want it all, on my local machine, always available, with an easy archive function.

Comments welcome. I can’t be the first person to think of this, so has anyone done an open-source comm client?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Athanasios Douitsis May 29, 2007 at 4:11 am

Isn’t Gmail going in that direction? I mean, the IM is integrated with the email client, and the conversations are stored like regular messages along with the rest of your “real” emails.

Robin Harris May 29, 2007 at 5:25 am


Good point. And Skype also stores chats along with phone call info.

Which rapidly gets into the question of trust. I don’t trust Google – or anyone else – to safely maintain all my comm records. I want my records to come together only at my client. And I want to be able to use a variety of comm channels: VOIP; several email accounts; several chat clients like Skype and Adium; cell phone records; downloads and uploads. Maybe even a view into bank accounts to capture financial flows.

Your own personal Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) cockpit, with temporal, recipient and comm channel views. Links to all the documents that are captured on the machine.

I think I’d find it useful. But maybe I’m the only one.


Red May 31, 2007 at 4:20 pm

I also have tens of thousands of emails journaled on my system and find Microsoft’s folder-based access paradigm worse than useless. I use a fabulous search tool from X1 and can find any email, attachment, or file instantly needing only some keyword or attribute. Perhaps keywords are “so yesterday”, but the model works for me!

Rex June 4, 2007 at 4:47 pm

I like “email as metadata”. We’re managing over hundreds of terabytes of scientific data in hundreds of thousands of files, and hundreds of file formats. We have trouble getting critical metadata that make the basic data useful. We’re going to look into integrating searches of data, metadata, and archived emails. That could mean lots more “cold data” (emails) to store and search, since we didn’t consider 99.999% of emails worth keeping.

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