PowerInbox Sees the Future of Social Software Platforms, and Its Name Is… E-mail

7/28/11Follow @gthuang

If you’re like most people, you do a lot of your personal communicating via Facebook and text messages, but you handle most of your business matters over e-mail. In fact, you probably spend far too much of your workday on e-mail (some estimates say 30 percent), and you wish you could be more efficient and productive with that time.

Well, what if you could do a lot more stuff directly from your inbox? Instead of clicking on e-mail links that take you somewhere else, for instance, what if you could watch videos, comment on people’s updates on Facebook and Twitter, and browse daily deals, all from the friendly confines of your e-mail account?

That’s the idea behind a young Cambridge, MA-based startup called PowerInbox. OK, maybe it won’t make you more productive at work or cut down on time spent in your inbox just yet. But the idea actually leads to something bigger, involving the future of e-mail as a unified platform for social apps.

First, some news. PowerInbox is rolling out its private beta platform today—you can try it out here using our access code. The free download works across Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and Outlook. Basically, it lets you do things like comment on Facebook, view photos, see and send tweets, and get information about local deals from Groupon (see screenshot below)—all without leaving your inbox.

The core idea behind PowerInbox, as founder Matt Thazhmon explains, is “let’s make e-mail interactive.” What he means, really, is adding social features to e-mail that will connect users more efficiently to the services they use every day.

PowerInbox was co-founded last year by three Electronic Arts veterans (including Thazhmon, who worked on Madden football and other games). The startup raised a $1 million seed round earlier this year from Atlas Venture, Longworth Venture Partners, Correlation Ventures, and angel investors. The four-person team, originally from Orlando, FL, by way of the San Francisco Bay Area, recently moved to the Boston area. The company has found office space for the coming year near Central Square in Cambridge.

There are plenty of e-mail-related companies out there, of course. They include—just to name a few—Baydin, Gist (now part of RIM), Help Scout, Mimecast, Rapportive, Taskforce, Senexx, SMTP, Sonian, and Yesware, to go along with Constant Contact, HubSpot, and a whole host of marketing tech companies. Some of these are trying to make your inbox more productive and efficient, while others use e-mail as a platform for other applications. And each e-mail system, like Gmail or Outlook, has its own add-ins and gadgets. But where PowerInbox is different is in its vision for the future.

The company’s long-term goal is for developers to create new apps on top of the PowerInbox e-mail platform. Anyone from Facebook to travel and deals sites (left) to video services (Netflix, anyone?) to recruiting, dating, or meeting-scheduling sites—indeed, any entity that interacts with customers by e-mail—could conceivably build an app that helps people interact with content through an inbox.

One emerging focus is on forming partnerships with gaming companies—such as social-network game giant Zynga, but also smaller developers—to let users play games within their e-mail, and make it that much easier to start playing. “We think this is going to be huge,” Thazhmon says.

But making big changes to e-mail tends to be hard because it’s an open platform, he says. “Because no one controls e-mail, no one cares enough to push it to the next level. E-mail needs to innovate and move on to the next generation.” He adds, “If e-mail is the way it is now in 100 years, it’ll probably go the way of the telegraph.”

(All of this raises the question of whether social networking sites would even exist if e-mail had been more innovative over the past decade—but that’s a topic for another day. As is the budding war between Facebook and e-mail.)

Meantime, it doesn’t look like anyone’s inbox is going anywhere. “Everyone lives in e-mail,” Thazhmon says. He points out that in 2010, e-mail systems added about 500 million new users (the total user base is around 4 billion). “E-mail added a whole Facebook of new users last year,” he says.

It’s still very early days for PowerInbox, so the company is focusing less on revenues and more on building something that people want to use, Thazhmon says. Its short-term challenges include creating more apps for other kinds of services (besides Twitter, Facebook, and Groupon) and getting lots of feedback from users and potential app developers.

To that end, Thazhmon wanted me to publish a link to his e-mail address so people can contact him with feedback and questions. (Spoken like a man who gets only 100 e-mails a day.) So here you go.

Now let’s all give him another problem to solve—the e-mail volume issue.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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