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.