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#8: Bundling and Unbundling of Email
Email is the most important software in my life, and probably in yours, too. Curiously, even though email is an aging technology, it is only becoming more important over time. That’s because there has been a bundling motion: over the recent years, it has become the central interface to many products and services that previously were unrelated to email. I’m going to describe those products that have been bundled, and suggest why they will unbundle out of email.
It’s now common to use “Log in with Google/Outlook” for many services, or for the service to send a single-use login link to your email address.
Similarly, if you click “Forgot password” on almost any website, verifying access to your email address is taken as proof that you are who you say you are.
The age of RSS is over, and now Substack is king. I receive dozens of emails every week from newsletters that I’ve signed up for.
As commerce has moved online, so have your records of transactions. Whether it’s my phone bill or Amazon order, I receive and organize it via email.
Coupons and Promotions
Businesses will send me lots of mail beyond receipts: loyalty codes, vouchers, all manners of financial incentive to go shop somewhere.
You might use Google or Apple’s native calendar to look at what’s next in your day or to send event invitations, but chances are that you receive all invitations (and their updates) via email. Many users even create events straight from email.
Email attachments are the most basic form of cloud storage. Looking for a scan of your passport? You probably sent it as an attachment to someone a few years ago. When I’m searching for a document, my email inbox is the first place I look.
In-between receipts and promotions, services love to send me account statements. Whether it’s my FICO score or Bird Scooter credits, updates trundle in by email.
Whether it’s a flight, restaurant, or a hotel, I never use the vendor’s app (e.g. OpenTable, Resy, Yelp) — it’s too hard to track what’s booked via what service — and instead rely on the fact that everything shows up in a search of recent mail.
There are two big problems with the above. The first is that it’s preposterously insecure. Because control of your email is key to authenticating, verifying your identity, and resetting passwords, if someone were to gain access to your email, they could basically unlock your entire life. It’s a single point of failure, and you have no recourse — the overwhelming majority of email users aren’t even paying for it!
The second problem is that email collapses under volume. There’s so much email that search is a key interface, but most email clients1 have weak search capabilities. Worse, it's hard to distinguish in search between different classes of email, e.g. receipts vs. promotions. If I'm looking for my recent American Express payment receipt, I search for "American Express". That returns a hundred finance newsletters. I search again, now for "from:*@americanexpress.com". Then I have to filter through a slew of promotions, advertisements, and updates, before I find the actual receipt. It's possible to counteract this by using filters and habitually unsubscribing, but doing so rigorously is uncommon among users.
All this has occurred because email is a universal interface: it’s easy to integrate, cheap to send, everyone has it, and storage is practically unlimited. But that doesn’t necessarily make the user experience good or sustainable. Like any catch-all storage, it eventually gets unwieldy, and some things need to be abstracted or moved out.
Importantly, most of these things shouldn’t even live in your email inbox in the first place. The authentication/identity verification items are undoubtedly an anti-pattern, and users will be safer and better off the sooner we move away from them. I would prefer to read newsletters via a standalone service instead of them polluting my in-mailbox search results. I would love it if receipts lived on my credit card transaction record rather than being emailed to me, and me then having to match them up.
This probably has to get worse before it gets better, but there is a slowly-mounting trend of it being recognized as a problem to solve. Businesses like Slick Inbox and Feedbin are addressing newsletter overload. Limited is taking receipts and gift cards out of your inbox. Many startups are trying to reinvent calendar management. Authentication and identity are massive opportunities, where password managers are making progress one inch at a time. Between all these dynamics and what LLMs will do to outbound sales, I’m very curious to see how email inboxes will look in five years.
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Practically, I mean every single email client I have ever tried.