The Magic of Email Conversations

In the mid 1990’s I used an email client that did a pretty good job of “threading conversations.”   The UI was kind of crummy, but it did some interesting things.  It was called Lotus Notes.  I also invested in a company called NetGenesis that made the first threaded web discussion software based on a construct that had been deeply implemented in BBS’s and Notes; in fact, we referred to it as “bringing Lotus Notes like threaded discussion functionality to the web.”  That product, net.Thread, was acquired by another company I was an investor in (eShare) which went on to be have a very successful acquisition by a public company called Melita.  I have no idea where net.Thread ended up but as a master-emailer I’ve always wondered why the very simple concept of a threaded conversation never became a standard part of the email UI.

Suddenly, it’s everywhere.  It started being talked about a few years ago when it threaded conversations appeared as a core feature of Gmail.  A conversation view existed in Outlook 2007 but it sucked. When I upgraded to Outlook 2010 I was pleasantly surprised that the conversation view was excellent, although it was bizarre to me that it wasn’t the default view.

On Saturday when I started my month of a diet of only Apple products, I immediately found conversations in Mac Mail.  It’s implemented perfectly.  Then, when I upgraded my iPhone to iOS 4 voila, conversations again!

Within a year, a UI construct that has been bouncing around for 15 years but never really crossed over into the mainstream took hold.  And it makes email much better to deal with, especially if you are part of an organization (or group of people) that have a heavy “reply-all” culture.

Ironically, it’s a pretty simple feature conceptually, but the UI implementation makes all the world of difference.  I can’t figure out if the Gmail implementation set the baseline that everyone is now copying or if email conversations just entered into the zeitgeist.  Regardless, it’s an interesting example of how a simple construct can lay dormant for a long time and then suddenly be everywhere.

I only hope someone doesn’t get a patent on this next year.  That would just be stupid.

  • I don't see why Gmail isn't the root of this. Or, putting it another way, why would they NOT get the credit?

    Everyone has complained about this for years; yet they slowly realize the brilliance of this idea, sorting email by conversations (subject) and then start using it — despite all the complaining. My perspective!

    I'm just sayin'…Sergie & Brin should get their credit, where credit is due…

    • Works for me!

      • yeah.. thanks for your understanding Brad:) I'm just saying, there may have been earlier pioneers, as you point out, which is clearly true. BUT… who took it mass-market? Sergie and Brin! They were the ones that really forced "conversation-mode" email into the mass market; they forced it so that the mass market of email users HAD to understand it (even if today, they STILL hate it:).

        Just sayin… 🙂

    • I'm pretty sure it uses the Message-ID and not the subject. That's why you can have conversations get hijacked when some lazy slob hits REPLY (to save themselves from having to enter an email address by hand) and then changes the subject to something entirely new.

      Gmail kinda makes it hard to change the subject (one whole click), so it kinda reduces this behavior. But still, not everyone uses Gmail.

      And I agree, props to Google for pushing it.

      • I think SMTP protocol should be enhanced in order to make the email conversations easy. Google Gmail should push this just like what they did to HTML5.

  • Funny that threading in email comes along at a time when Twitter, Facebook, etc create new fragments to follow. I'm at the point where I could really use something that threaded every asynchronous event/communication in my entire life.

    • Have you tried Gist? It gets after a bunch of the problem.

      • the problem with is, they require you to surrender your Gmail login and password in order to use their service. As much as i love the idea, T.A. McCann, and his team.. that is BAD. Look at how many people had their social equity destroyed by trusting Twitter with the same information. But i am sure GIST will find a way around that; they must have a plan.

        • Hi Steve, we initially requested user credentials to access gmail's mail folders as that was the only way that user's could grant IMAP access to their gmail account. Fortunately, Google has released an Oauth mechanism for IMAP and we've implemented that about a month ago. Thus, users no longer need to provide their gmail credentials to Gist and instead can rely on the OAuth protocol to authorize Gist's access to their gmail. This is an industry standard and ensures that your credentials are never used or stored by Gist or any other requesting party. Hope that helps!

          Steve Newman – CTO/

          • Hey Steve, THANKS for that great news! is the most impressive startup that I've met since moving to Seattle January 2010. I had heard rumors that the OAuth protocol was coming, but didn't know it would arrive so quickly.

            I have met GIST's CEO T.A. McCann, and he is one of the best startup CEO's that i've had the pleasure to know! So i am not too surprised about this positive development.

            Thanks for filling me in.

  • What is almost better about O2010 is that you can have normal view and then threaded view in folders. Hence my STS email is threaded, my TechStars email is threaded, yet my daily flow of email is just the normal flow.

    Both work for purposes intended, and if we live and work long enough, it just keeps getting better. And it should go without saying that is incredibly powerful if your relatonships are important…

    • I can't see why you'd ever NOT use threaded view. If you are in front of your computer and in email all day long, it doesn't matter as much. But if you step away, even for a little while, it saves so much time as threads start building up.

    • I just want to comment to point out that i have SEEN and MET the legendary Buzz Bruggeman. In fact, i saw him yesterday at the Seattle startup coffee event!

  • Greetings Brad,
    Thanks again for your sponsorship of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Spirit of Entrpreneurship Award Fund. Hope you don't mind the "doctoring" up of the photo 🙂 .
    Allan http://theentrepreneursandmentorsnetwork.homestea

    • Very nicely done! It almost looks like I was there.

  • I remember lots of people hated gmail's 'conversations' when it was launched. I had mixed feelings about the implementation, but now, I wouldn't have it any other way.

    Don't even get me started on software patents 🙂

  • Great post and my first visit here.

    Threaded convos have been around for quite a while now – but depending on what email providers one was using – they might not have been more aware of the existence of those threads. I only started using Gmail about 6 maybe 7 years ago and haven't looked back since. Hotmail wasn't catering to the thread conversations back then.

  • A colleague of mine is leaving to join a big financial services dinosaur who still uses Lotus Notes. My comment to her: well, at least you get threaded email conversations. I need to upgrade my Outlook.

  • I have lived in "conversation view" in Outlook as long as it has been around – can't imagine managing high volume e-mail any other way. However, the really indispensible tool was an unsupported utility called Thread Compressor, which eliminated interstitial messages which had been replied to in the conversation. Did a great job of managing forks, attachments, changes in recipients, etc., and I'm glad to see MSFT has FINALLY added a version of it in Lookout 2010 (Clean Up in Conversations).

  • I agree it is insane there's not been a better UI for conversations much sooner, but I am not fond of the Gmail UI for threaded conversations either – it has some limitations if you are sending several emails to multiple people. There must be something better.
    I think Xobni was addresing the issue well enough although the last time I used it (admittedly more than a year ago) it was causing some compatibility issues with other applications on my machine.

  • Gmail is not the start of this. It is also not the mail readers that create the threads; it the mail sending program that builds the thread structure. Look at the full headers of a piece of email and notice the In-Reply-To: and References: headers. Those headers are what makes threaded conversations work. The mail reader just follows the links. These headers are added by the sender. Threads were messed up for a long time since a lot of mail sending programs did not add these headers. Everyone participating in a conversation needed to add these header to make conversations work.

    • The author's email client inserts the headers, and the recipient's email client (be it desktop or web-based) interprets them. Smarter clients can also correctly thread messages which don't include the headers, though not quite as easily. That's one of the things gmail missed.

  • Jamie Zawinsky wrote this in 1997, and the algorithm he describes still sounds better than most of the threading we see in products these days:

    I think the real shift gmail caused is that it finally broke the idea that if a mail client doesn't look and feel exactly like Outlook, nobody will ever use it — something we unix command line folks have known all along.

  • noname

    iOS4’s version of threaded mail doesn’t thread your sent messages … you only see part of the conversation

  • Randell

    Am I the only oldtimer here who remembers when mail readers supported threads by default (and some of them defaulted to showing you threads)? Old-school text-type readers like Gnus (which runs under Emacs, and which I still use), pine, elm, mutt, etc all support it, and some defaulted to showing threads (Gnus at least, given it was based on news-reader interfaces).

    If it's just that they changed the default to thread-view, more power to them.