I walked through the smokey Internet cafe, tripping over students’ backpacks, through cobwebs of cigarette smoke. The cool jets from the air conditioner and PC fans were a welcome relief from Beijing’s heavy, humid smog. In that cafe, I watched gamers and chatters, browsers and social networks use the web. The computers here were identical to those at home but they were used in a completely different way.
The screen was divided into two parts: a browser/game window of 80% width and a column of concurrent video chats of 20% width. The twenty-something YouTube goer I stood behind would watch five or six segments on YouTube. Finding a gem, he would ping the link to his video chats individually, watch their reaction and go back to surfing. I saw passive video chatting for the first time in China.
I strolled behind an art student browsing for Photoshop tutorials. Web pages in China are full of links. They look like Yahoo in the late 90s. Why? Text entry is impossibly frustrating. To type a chinese character, you have to type the romanized sound of the chinese character called the pinyin using the Qwerty keyboard and then select the character from a popup menu. That’s four language translations: chinese character to pinyin to Qwerty to character. This system is called IME, input method editor, and it is used on PCs and mobile phones – even the iPhone. It’s like watching your grandmother type or grass grow.
Paul Graham’s Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas calls for a reinvention of email. Not a frontal assault, but a flank attack. Email’s replacement will be mobile first and will take into account data entry challenges like Chinese face with IME. To reach critical mass, email 2.0 will need to serve users across all geographies.
What better way to reach them than through the 5B mobile phones already deployed? Data SMS providers like Voxer, Pinger and others prove users are willing to try new communication protocols particularly if they solve a consumer problem: these services reduce SMS costs to the tune of $14B annually. Mobile use imposes other constraints: screen size imposes focus on a particular task; network bandwidth demands efficient communication protocolas; touch screens force users to reduce typing.
Social networking messages may shed some light on email 2.0. Each Facebook message carries with it much more data than an email payload: the graphs of the sender and recipient, message history, presence status. These services provide more context around email which allows the email system to be more intelligent about prioritization. Facebook verbs such as like, shared, listened to, etc. showed us for the first time that what were once email messages could be transformed into actions.
An entrepreneur in the sector told me once, “All enterprise data is the same basic construct. A subject, a body, a group of people/email addresses, a date, and some related files. Whether that’s an email, a task, a help ticket, a candidate’s resume in an ATS and so on.” He was right.
If we could act on our email within our email, that would be something. Buy something in your email. Assign a task in your email. Update a status in your email. Approve a candidate for hire in your email. It wouldn’t be email anymore. It would be something much much better. We would look back on email of old like the Chinese IME system – a relic from a time when work was much more manual.
With the APIs built into most SaaS tools these days, something like this should be possible. I’m excited to start using it. Maybe I’ll see it first in a Sao Paulo coffee shop. Or in New York. Who knows?