Universal Inbox is Too Much of a Good Thing

I have been watching the news about the new Threadsy beta (see Lifehacker,  GigaOm, and TechCrunch for specific coverage).  If you are like me, you may have multiple communication flows and anything that can help you to pull them into a single interface can be great.  Right now I use Mozilla’s Thunderbird to aggregate my e-mail.  Each of my Google Mail and other accounts are set up using IMAP, so that I can access the account through a remote piece of software (Thunderbird in this case) and any changes I make (read a message, delete or move it) are reflected on the account.

There has been a lot written on the universal inbox (which I am using generically, not in reference to the Universal Inbox).  The feature set tends to be the same, as is the requisite reference to The Lord of the Rings (“one ring to . . . ” you get the picture).  The inbox aggregates the e-mail from multiple accounts into some type of dashboard or other simple interface.  You can then manage many communications sources from one point.

As this piece at ReadWriteWeb indicates, though, the universal inbox is an oft-tried, rarely successful application.  I agree with their perception: most people want to use their e-mail software, not some Web-based aggregation tool.

So back to Threadsy.  I was intrigued because it offered not just to manage my e-mail (a problem) but also to weave in my Twitter stream (@davidpwhelan) so that my e-mails and Twitter messages were all in the same single flow.  I registered for the beta and gave it a test.  The application is promising but at the end of the day, it looks like it will face the same hurdles as other universal inboxes.  The beta worked – and I understand that a beta isn’t perfect – and there didn’t appear to be anything that didn’t work as advertised or designed.  But I still didn’t like the experience.  Opening an e-mail message relies on IMAP, just like Thunderbird or Microsoft Outlook can.  The retrieval of the e-mail from Google took a surprising amount of time.  I liked that I could see social information about my correspondent when the message opened.  If you use Google Mail, you may already be using the Rapportive tool to replicate this feature, which shows a picture, full name, and other information if known through one of the social avatar sites.

Unlike client-based e-mail applications, the lumping of all accounts into one almost made the information flow worse.  I lost some of the visual cues that helped me to triage my e-mail and lifestream.  You can select to look at an individual e-mail account or Twitter feed, but only one at a time.  It would be nice to be able to have a single tab for each communication stream that is aggregated in the unified view, similar to a faceted search on an e-commerce site.  Then I could flip between unified and distinct sources, as needed.

At the end of my brief try at using Threadsy, I was reaffirmed that David Weinberger’s book title – Small Pieces, Loosely Joined – is the likely future for e-mail clients, among many other things.  Whether you are using Microsoft Outlook with Xobni and other add-ons I mention in the text or Mozilla’s Thunderbird or some other installed or Web-based e-mail client like Google Mail, you have a far richer feature set than any of the universal inbox type tools, like Threadsy, can emulate.  That is not to say they can’t or won’t in the future.  The speed with which new add-ons for e-mail software comes out, though, means that a site building an aggregation environment is battling against very nimble, small application extensions that can do similar functions within an environment in which the user is already comfortable.

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