My good deed done for Mike Arrington

E-mail overload is a fact of life but there are already existing solutions. What's missing is real commitment from the likes of Microsoft and IBM, et al.

The first e-mail program I ever used was MCI Mail. When the IT administrator swung by one day, he told me "this was the future." Maybe he had Blade Runner in mind.

Within a few weeks, my inbox was already swamped and I had no idea how best to proceed. I subsequently graduated to Lotus Notes and then later, a kludgy product from Microsoft whose name I thankfully can't recall. These days I'm on MS Outlook, where I've become master of the mass block-delete.

Amazing that about two decades after e-mail became a must-have tool in the workplace that we're still struggling how to avoid getting swamped by the daily crush of e-mail. I was reminded of this mess after Mike Arrington posted a late day question over at TechCrunch bemoaning his struggle to master the flow of e-mail correspondence accumulating in his inbox.

"I routinely declare email bankruptcy and simply delete my entire inbox. But even so, I currently have 2,433 unread emails in my inbox. Plus another 721 in my Facebook inbox. and about thirty skype message windows open with unanswered messages. It goes without saying, of course, that my cell phone voicemail box is also full (I like the fact that new messages can't be left there, so I have little incentive to clear it out)."

How do I deal with email now? I scan the from and subject fields for high payoff messages. People I know who don't waste my time, or who I have a genuine friendship with. Or descriptive subject lines that help me understand that I should allot a minute or more of my life to opening it and reading it."

This is old stuff for anyone with a Internet connection. Unfortunately, the problem gets worse all the time and we deal with it the best way we can--usually in a ad-hoc, half-assed fashion. So it is that Arrington concludes his post with a what-if rumination.

"The long term answer to all of this isn't that people need to try harder to respond to communication requests. The long term answer is that someone needs to create a new technology that allows us to enjoy our life but not miss important messages. If I knew what that solution was, I'd quit this blog and go do it. Someone out there, though, has the beginning of an idea on how we can better manage our electronic communications. And he or she may someday turn that into a product and save us.

If you are the person with the idea to save us all, send me an email and tell me all about it. Actually, strike that. Drop by my house and tell me all about it. I don't want your message to get lost in my inbox."

Actually, developers rolled up their sleeves to take a crack at the challenge a while ago. For whatever reason, though, the big e-mail providers offer little more than lip service.

Xobni (inbox backward, get it?) is an e-mail organizer (If memory serves, these guys actually were selected as part of the TechCrunch 40), but they don't do prioritization. Instead, the program displays more information about the messages as you click on them.

One company that I'm familiar with is called ClearContext, which has been toiling in semi-anonymity here in San Francisco for the last five years. (Full disclosure: I know the principles and have tossed back a few suds on a occasions. So what? But I thought you should know.)

Anyway, they've already developed an add-in product to try to eliminate the e-mail overload crush by assigning priorities and topic categorization. The reviews so far have been good, but this remains a small start-up--three guys and a guitar--still waiting for that proverbial big break to come along.

The rub is that the majority of the corporate world still depends on the likes of Microsoft and IBM for their e-mail systems. If the big players want to resolve the problem, they can either buy some of these smaller startups for their technologies or tap the Brainiacs in the labs to come up with a fix. It shouldn't be all that hard, can it? Or maybe I'm missing the point.

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Tech Culture
About the author

Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.

 

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