Why Shortmail?

Email has become a big part of our lives. It’s the common denominator of the Internet. It dictates much of our workflow routine. And for many, it’s completely overwhelming. Think about it: do you know anyone who has a happy relationship with email?

We believe it’s time for a new design for email, and we have set out to work towards that goal with Shortmail.

Here are the major problems we’ve identified with email as we’ve known it:

  • Poorly Organized: Email is a relentless river of information, organized either by individual messages or by subject lines. It’s difficult to find what’s important, even with schemes like “priority inbox.”
  • Loaded with Trash: Much of the email we receive is from machines. Think about how much time you spend deleting messages from your Inbox, just so you can see what’s there.
  • Treats Machines and People as Equal: Ever wake up at 5:30 in the morning realizing you need to send an email to someone? We bet you’ve never felt that way about getting back to a marketer who sent you an automated email. Why do we allow marketing mail to overwhelm our real relationships with people?
  • Tries to Be All Things: Email’s strength is in its ubiquity and interoperability, but we’ve built our email systems to literally handle anything we might throw at it. Want to send a Word document, marketing email, automated server notification, or spam about Viagra? Email does it all. And you pay the price, sorting out this river of trash each day.
  • There Can Be Only One? Email providers try to convince us that we should have a single, primary email address, but research has shown that people maintain multiple identities (six on average) to maintain different parts of their lives. So the drive by providers to force people into a single, one-size-fits-all email identity is actually in conflict with how people want to use email. Instead we should recognize that special-purpose email identities deliver real value.
  • Sharing Your Email Address in Public Is Scary: Think about it. Do you really want to put your primary email address on the web? Spammers, scammers, freaks and geeks await. But hiding your email address just means it’s harder for someone to reach you and make a potentially valuable new connection.
  • People – Especially Strangers – Can Be Overwhelming: When you receive an 800-word email from someone, it can be difficult, even painful, to extract its points so that you can respond. This is doubly hard when it’s from someone you don’t know. What if people were forced to keep it simple?

We developed Shortmail to address many of these issues. But mostly we wanted to make e-mail a happier experience.

And to do this, we arrived at a single core insight: email is about relationships. Traditional email actually makes it harder to maintain relationships because it imposes a burden on you to keep track of how messages are interrelated and who – in a sea of unstructured messages – actually needs your attention.

Researchers call this imposed burden cognitive load. Shortmail is about lowering cognitive load and increasing happiness – ultimately improving relationships.

So What Is Shortmail?

Shortmail is totally new – redesigned from the ground up – and gives you an email identity where relationships are magically better. In a sense, it’s a peaceful garden where relationships can flourish amid the mean streets of the Internet.

As the name implies, Shortmail is email – only shorter. We’ve applied the idea of length-limitation to email. All Shortmail messages must be less than 500 characters. We know that people are becoming more accustomed to length-limited communications: Twitter and SMS messaging demonstrate that.

But that’s not the whole story. Imposing a length limitation affects our design in several ways.

  1. Limiting messages to 500 characters puts the burden of conciseness onto senders. Blaise Pascal famously said, “If I had more time I would write a shorter letter.” With unstructured email, we leave ourselves open to those who would take our time. With Shortmail, all messages must be concise. And that applies to everyone in the conversation, forcing you to be more concise also.
  2. Spam is almost entirely eliminated at the root. 99% of spam email does not pass our length limitations, thereby allowing us to devote more computing resources to processing real message content. The fact that 90% of email on the Internet is spam is a major reason why there are not more new email service providers – and innovation in email. Our length limitation lets us innovate.
  3. We can present email in a more conversational format. If you can be sure that message content is 500 characters or less you can present it in a conversation format rather than a “message with headers” format. We eliminate unnecessary headers, quoted message content, and signatures to focus on what the writer actually said, and to present that in the context of a conversation.
  4. We can store a nearly unlimited number of messages for our users. It may take a major public company to store gigabytes of email for an individual user for free, but by limiting the length of messages, we can store a huge number of messages efficiently for our users in a relatively small space, meaning we can devote more resources  to innovation and less on “brute force” problems like disk storage.
  5. Email data becomes more structured. Conventional email data is a jumble of attachments, spam, HTML and text requiring massive resources to process in a way that can add value. Shortmail is stored in a clearly defined schema that can allow us to process it in interesting new ways and deliver new views for our users.

Length-limitation also opened the door to other innovations. For example, Shortmail works best when corresponding with people (as opposed to marketers or machines).

And because you’re communicating with people, we can organize your email experience around them. Rather than focus on messages or threads, we organize your inbox in a way that makes it easy to respond to people.

Letting you focus on conversations with people lowers cognitive load and makes it easier for you to maintain better relationships; by contrast, conventional email imposes cognitive load and is corrosive to relationships.

Tell Us What You Value

This is just the beginning. We’ll be sharing more of our plans here; we have an ambitious roadmap with many innovations. But we want to hear from you.

How can we help make email a better experience? Do you have a suggestion for us? How can we improve Shortmail? We are far from done and we need your help. I’m Dave Troy, CEO of 410Labs. Send me a shortmail, or follow us on Twitter!

And if you’re not already a Shortmail user, please request an invitation at shortmail.com – we are in Beta and we’ll get you an invitation soon.

Thanks for being a part of the reinvention of email! We all know it can’t come too soon.

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