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June 5, 2011

Things I Want to See – 1. True Cloud-based Email

by AlanSBPerkins

This article is the first in a series of articles looking at changes/improvements I would like to see happen. You will find them categorised under the category “Things I Want to See”, and also filed under specific vendors where appropriate.

An increasing number of people are coming to understand intuitively the difference between traditional peer-to-peer document sharing modes where multiple instances of documents exist, at least once on each client machine. You know the drill, you attach a document to an email, the recipient opens the attachment, edits it, saves it and then attaches the saved new version to a new email and sends it back. Before long, there are multiple copies of the document and it can be difficult to know how the document evolved. In the case of several people, it can even be difficult to know which version of the document is the current one. There may not even be one single latest version, as two people may edit two different earlier versions at once. Stitching these all back into a master document is not easy.

A lot of tools have been developed to simplify the potentially incredibly complex task of managing all these document versions. But the cloud provides a simpler way, by fundamentally only having one document location. So instead of linking people to people, you link people to documents and the problem elegantly goes away:

Diagram 1 – Handling shared documents
Traditional Document Sharing Cloud-based Document Sharing

In the case if email, we have failed to really make this transition. Yes, we have managed to cloudify our email repositories so that they are ubiquitously available to us – any place, any time, any device. But email still acts on the basis of person to person: we send an email and now the email is in our outbox (wherever that may be) and it is in the recipients’ inboxes (wherever those inboxes may be). To be clear: we still maintain separate repositories for emails – they may be in the cloud, but they are no different conceptually from being on our desktop or on a corporate server.

But it would make so much more sense to me if emails could be stored in one central location – just like documents – and accessed by those who have entitlement. I sense there would be a lot of real benefits from this approach, including:

  • The ability to recall an email prior to it being opened by the recipient – in a way where they are none the wiser;
  • The ability to prevent them from sending the email to a third party;
  • The ability to know whether they have opened the email (unless they actively prevent you – I think that privacy aspect should be maintained);
  • The ability to modify an email after sending it, but showing very clearly that it is a second version, with the ability to see the earlier versions.
  • Perhaps the ability to use it as a real-time communication tool.
  • The ability to define relationships (eg followers/friends à la twitter, chatter, yammer, facebook, linked in etc) – these relationships could ensure that a sophisticated sharing/action platform could ensue, as well as actions that may happen in their absence (anyone heard of spam?) – also think Google Priority Inbox – a nice concept.

The host for this data could be a public cloud environment, or it could housed on premise, but that would limit the scope of the functionality – in some cases a good thing.

I know this is starting to sound a lot like  Google Wave in places, but this is not about productisation, or complication or adding lots of features – it is about simplifying and facilitating the fundamental ways we communicate.

There are a few notable properties about emails that differ from regular documents and these would need to be maintained, including:

  • Access granted to a recipient, once opened, could never be revoked;
  • The email could never be deleted, once opened by the recipient;
  • The recipient could not change a sender’s communique, but they could reply – this could be done in a way where there were edits suggested, and the original sender could click to approve those edits, perhaps converting to a document in a process.

Increasingly people are voting with their feet to move away from email, but perhaps we need to re-examine the way we think about email and perhaps the problem is fixable by examining the foundations and making some fundamental adjustments.

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