Today we communicate through a multitude of different messaging channels: email, SMS, chat, video chat, and social networking to name a few. However, is there any one place you can see all your different types of messages on all your devices? Not even close. The closest any individual messaging channel has come to this ideal is email itself, but with the growth of phone and video based channels, email is less and less dominant. As a result, we now need to reimagine the “email inbox” to be a universal inbox where messages of all types reside. We need a DropBox equivalent for messaging.
What is a “DropBox for Messaging?”
The main difference between all the messaging channels is just how quickly we expect a response, so why are messages located in so many different places? Why, with a few exceptions, is Short Message Service (SMS) confined to the mobile phone? Why do I have a Facebook feed in one place, a Twitter feed in another and my email in another? Just as DropBox allows users to upload files of any type to one application that is then available on all devices, we should have one universal inbox for all kinds of messages. We ought to be able to simply ask, “do I need a real-time response from the person I’m going to send a message to?”, and if so, send one message through all the various real-time channels (SMS, Chat, WhatsApp, etc) to reach a friend. Messaging channels should be transparent to users: we should be able to send messages over multiple channels at once without managing the specifics.
There are hurdles to creating the Dropbox of messaging, of course. It is hard to replicate all features across all devices. Even for email, offline access is available through local file storage on your desktop and phone, but in a browser, that availability only recently became possible through HTML5. Additionally, many messaging channels are ‘walled gardens’: often they have no API available to third party developers, or intentionally try to keep third parties from connecting to the service outside the app. This makes it difficult to compile all message types into one application.
An example of this is WhatsApp, a relatively new entrant to the messaging scene that has quickly grown to over 400 million users. However, there is no officially supported API (although there is a good unofficial Python API), and consumers can only use WhatsApp on one device per phone number! New mobile messaging apps like WeChat, Line, and Kik are popping up every day, but none of these have a third-party API that allows connections outside the app. Most messaging channels grow popular almost solely due to network effects (i.e. I use Facebook because all my friends use Facebook), so WhatsApp and other messaging companies should realize that a walled garden actually hinders user growth.
How We Can Replace The Traditional Inbox
Now lets say we do manage to stick all types of messages in one inbox. Is a traditional “inbox” really the right place? Most messaging channels originated with an exchange of text (or voice) in a linear format to form a conversation, but messaging, and email in particular, is being used more and more for collaborative tasks: editing a PowerPoint presentation, building a spreadsheet, scheduling a meeting, etc. In these cases, most emails are actually just comments about particular parts of the document or task. The “message” is really the PowerPoint presentation itself. For example, wouldn’t you rather see an alert/message showing the edited page of the presentation your boss doesn’t like, as opposed to just a line of text describing the comments?
Many companies are trying to solve this collaborative-task problem, DropBox and Google Drive among them. In Gmail, you no longer have to download attachments to view using Google Drive, and clearly Google Docs makes it possible to collaboratively view and edit a document, but neither of those features really enable collaborative messaging.
Remember Google Wave? It was messaging designed to be more collaborative, but didn’t integrate with email and was ultimately shut down in August 2010. Last March, DropBox reportedly paid almost $100 million for popular mail app Mailbox, less than a month after the app’s launch, to help tie file sharing to email; tech companies are increasingly aware of this need for consolidated messaging.
As co-founder of boxUno, a universal email/messaging inbox, I strongly believe the world needs a Dropbox for messaging, even if the path is challenging.