The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-mail

Xconomy San Francisco — 

I. Too Much of a Good Thing

I’ll begin by admitting my biases. I don’t like electronic mail. In the pre-Internet days of the 1970s, when e-mail as we know it was invented, it may have been a decent solution to a certain problem—namely, the need for users logged into a single mainframe, server, or network to exchange short messages. But those users were scientists and engineers, and they were mostly sharing technical information.

The difficulty is that e-mail evolved into a tool used in millions of workplaces around the world, without ever being updated or redesigned to suit its new users. We long ago phased out other flawed or imperfect 1970s technologies, like analog TV broadcasts and leaded gasoline. But when it comes to knowledge work and interoffice communication, we’re mired in the past.

E-mail’s flaws as a communications platform for modern business are many, obvious, and frequently lamented:

1. It’s too democratic. Anyone with your e-mail address can send you a message at zero cost, and it will show up right at the top of your inbox, pushing down something truly important from a boss, a spouse, or a colleague.

2. It’s too opaque. Unless you pay for special tracking software, e-mail doesn’t provide anything similar to the “signature confirmation” option offered by the good old U.S. Postal Service. So you have no way of knowing whether the person you’re trying to reach received or opened your message.

3. It creates the illusion of immediacy. Many people treat e-mail as if it were a real-time medium, just one step short of sending a text message or picking up the phone. But in fact it’s highly asynchronous, meaning urgent messages might end up sitting in the recipient’s inbox for hours or days before they’re seen. To make matters worse, there are no built-in features on the recipient’s side to distinguish between the truly urgent messages and the merely informational or the outright spammy (see Item 1).

4. It’s too dangerous. Because it’s such an open system, e-mail can be hijacked for spam, phishing attacks, worms, and viruses. An e-mail message’s header information can be spoofed, making it easy for bad guys to trick you into thinking their messages are coming from a trusted source. And because e-mail isn’t encrypted—unless both you and your intended recipient have the patience to use a wearisome cryptographic system like S/MIME or OpenPGP—you might as well be sending a copy of everything you write to the National Security Agency.

5. There’s too damn much of it. The average e-mail user gets about 100 messages per day. If you have a job that involves gathering information or collaborating with lots of other people, the burden can be far greater. McKinsey found that reading and answering e-mail takes a whopping 28 percent of the workweek for the average knowledge worker. Think about it: that’s like spending all day Monday and half of the day Tuesday just answering your e-mail, and getting around to your actual work starting Tuesday afternoon.

There’s another way of looking at this, of course. For many knowledge workers, communicating with other people is their actual work, or a big part of it. And for lots of important messages, e-mail can be faster than the alternatives. Many people complain about how much e-mail they have to deal with, when what they’re really complaining about is how much work they have.

The question, to me, is whether e-mail makes the rest of your work easier or harder. As a journalist, I’m in constant communication with sources and colleagues, so managing e-mail is a big part of my job—but only part of it. I also write articles, which requires uninterrupted time to think. My personal beef with e-mail is that it saps this time. I get a lot of messages (see Item 1) and people expect swift replies (see Item 3), so I have to check my inbox dozens of times a day. It’s a lot harder to carve out time for thinking when e-mail is always vying for my attention.

In short, e-mail and related digital distractions force us all to be multi-taskers, and that’s a role for which most of us are ill-suited. Recent studies by neuroscientists have shown that only about 2 percent of the population can switch back and forth between multiple tasks without causing their performance on any individual task to plummet. This leads to real costs in the workplace. Indeed, one research firm estimated in 2007 that the task-switching caused by e-mail costs $650 billion a year in lost productivity and innovation.

So, the pain from e-mail is widely shared. And because it’s the job of entrepreneurs to address pain points, there’s a growing array of alternative communication services, from enterprise social networks like Yammer and Jive to document-sharing systems like Box and Dropbox. But e-mail isn’t likely to disappear from the office anytime soon. That’s because it has one insuperable advantage: nobody owns it.

“The challenge is that right now no one is creating a unified model” to replace e-mail, says Aaron Levie, the co-founder and CEO of Box in Los Altos, CA. “And unless there is one provider that can [deliver information] as pervasively or as predictably as e-mail, then we can never get away from it. Think about somebody having that much power in a proprietary model. It’s unlikely to happen.”

Facebook may be a good medium for hitting up a friend with a quick message, “but that’s because Facebook has a billion users,” Levie adds. “Until that happens in the enterprise you are going to have e-mail as the ubiquitous tool.” And he’s speaking as someone who has every reason to wish otherwise: Box has raised more than $400 million in venture funding to pursue his belief that office workers want to send less e-mail and spend more time collaborating on shared documents stored in the cloud.

So e-mail is here to stay. To paraphrase Churchill, it’s the worst form of communication, except for all the others.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ongoing efforts, at Box and other startups in its peer group, to rethink the life of the modern knowledge worker around supplemental forms of communication and collaboration. In fact, for the first time in decades, there’s a collection of smart, decently funded companies proposing that office employees step away from the e-mail—or at least minimize its use within the walls of the business. A few of these companies offer a radically different vision of the business organization and how things get done inside it.

In a company where every employee is tied to Outlook or Gmail all day, the atomic unit of work is inevitably going to be an e-mail message. It’s the smallest, most indivisible representation of a thing that somebody needs to get done; it’s the vessel carrying information about the task, who’s assigning it, how it’s to be carried out, and when.

But certain workplaces are experimenting with a new kind of office physics where the atomic unit of work might be, say, a task on a project list, or an appointment in a digital calendar, or a status update in a news feed, or a document in a file-sharing system.

I’ve spent the last year tracking a few purveyors of this new science, including companies like Asana, Tempo, Yammer, and Box, and evaluating whether their ways of doing things might eventually displace e-mail. The answer is yes, perhaps, at least inside certain kinds of organizations.

E-mail won’t go away because each new internal system needs to interface with the outside world, where e-mail is still the standard. In a perverse way, this means the new systems can end up generating even more e-mail messages.

But maybe that’s okay. I’ve also been spending time talking with people who think there are ways to redeem e-mail, and even make it a pleasurable and productive part of one’s work. A correctly configured e-mail client, one young startup argues, could become the clearinghouse for all of your work-related tasks, giving you the clarity to know at all times what needs to be done next.

I’ll get back to that in a minute. Meanwhile, come with me on a brief tour of some ideas for sidestepping, supplementing, or salvaging e-mail.

II. The Task at Hand

No company I’ve visited is as ambitious and dogmatic in its battle against e-mail as Asana.

The tag line on the San Francisco startup’s website is “Teamwork Without E-mail,” and the company’s founding philosophy is that tasks—not e-mails, not documents, not meetings—are the real atomic unit of work. If that’s true, then one effective way to get things done in the workplace would be to have a single, trusted repository of data about all the projects an organization is working on, where the people responsible for each sub-task could communicate directly. In essence, it would be a mashup of to-do lists and e-mail, and would replace both.

That would sound like a grandiose and quixotic idea, if Asana’s founders, Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein, hadn’t already proved that they can build world-changing communications systems. Moskovitz, 30, was a co-founder of Facebook and served as the social networking giant’s chief technology officer and vice president of engineering through 2008, when he left with enough equity to make him a billionaire many times over. Rosenstein was a product manager at Google who built a task-tracking system and a Web page creator for the search leader, then moved to Facebook in 2007-2008, where he helped create the Like button and the controversial Beacon advertising program.

Asana’s cloud-based task tracking system for teams took its inspiration from a similar Web application that Moskovitz built inside Facebook, after he realized how much of every product manager and engineer’s time was going into what he calls “work about work,” such as e-mail and meetings. As people spend more time issuing progress updates and searching for the latest updates from others, he warns, the work about work becomes the work itself, and nothing real gets done.

Smart organizations find a way out: they adopt or invent a system of record to replace all the e-mails, Post-it notes, and whiteboards. “Sufficiently large technology companies all just build this for themselves,” Moskovitz says. “Apple has a very famous system called Radar. I built the one that Facebook still uses today. Justin built the one for Google. We really think it is part of the secret sauce of why these organizations do well and grow so quickly: they have figured out the way groups should organize.”

Asana co-founders Dustin Moskovitz (left) and Justin Rosenstein (right)

Asana co-founders Dustin Moskovitz (left) and Justin Rosenstein (right)

The core of the Asana service is a personal task list that’s viewable inside a Web browser, similar to Gmail. Tasks can be grouped into projects; projects can be shared across a team of followers; and team leaders can assign tasks to individual project followers. Tasks can be sorted by due date or assignee, and followers can attach comments or documents to each task, with the latest changes reflected on each follower’s dashboard.

The whole idea is to keep the tasks and the associated conversations and materials side by side, to minimize task switching. “Often organizations have a system that is meant to be the record of what their company intends to do—maybe it’s Microsoft Project or a Gantt chart,” Moskovitz says. “But that is a secondary source of truth. All your real planning is happening on the communications tool. You typically have a guilt-trip process: ‘Go put this e-mail on the wiki.’ But those systems inevitably fall into disrepair, because there has always been some conversation since it was updated.” Moskovitz calls Asana “the first product that is really the marriage between the data repository and the communications layer.”

Hundreds of thousands of teams use Asana, including people inside practically every high-growth tech startup you’ve ever heard of— Airbnb, Birchbox, Dropbox, Foursquare, Pinterest, Stripe, and Uber, to name a few. According to Rosenstein, customers report to Asana that they see an average 85 percent reduction in the volume of internal e-mail.

“What they tell us is, ‘This is not a slight upgrade or a cool addition to our toolkit. This is a radical change to the way we work together,’” Rosenstein says. “A ton of activity that used to go into writing and reading e-mails, or sitting in weekly meetings—all of that was communication whose purpose was to answer really basic questions like what to do or what to let go of—all of those things are immediately answerable in Asana without having to go bug someone.”

There are some strictures to the Asana creed. For one thing, it works best when everyone in an organization is using it, even to track their home and personal tasks. Otherwise, users have to jump back and forth between different tools, which Moskovitz views as wasteful. “When we started out we knew we had a couple of necessities for having a successful product,” he says. “One was being low-friction enough that you are willing to use it as your personal task manager, so it becomes the primary source of truth.”

But even in an all-Asana company, unfortunately, the frictionlessness stops at the walls of the organization. The software lets insiders invite partners, customers, clients, and other outsiders to join temporary teams. But so far there’s no way to fully link task lists across two or more subscribing organizations.

That means most users still have to fall back on e-mail to stay in touch with outside partners, which Moskovitz and Rosenstein see as a major barrier to collaboration and productivity. “Right now the friction of doing a partnership or any kind of business development is so high, you are reluctant to do things unless you think there is a really high chance it will be valuable,” Rosenstein says. “Our aspiration is not just that you have this company here and there, but all companies using Asana, and as a result they can all communicate seamlessly. That will be a total game changer.”

III. Living in the Document

In many knowledge-based organizations, communication takes place mainly over e-mail, while the bulk of the work—the collaborative processing of ideas—occurs inside documents: Microsoft Word files, Web pages, spreadsheets, presentations, and the like. One of the big transitions underway in document-rich workplaces these days is the movement away from an older generation of on-premises enterprise content management systems from companies like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and EMC toward cheaper, more consumerized online file sharing and hosting services from startups like Box and Dropbox. The new kids on the block know that today’s knowledge workers want simple tools for moving files around, and that they want access to these tools on all of their devices, including their laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

“I would say between Dropbox and Evernote and Box and Skydrive and all of these services, we’re sort of all going after the same ultimate mission of instant access to all of your data at any time from anywhere on any device,” says Box’s Levie. “Some companies think about how you do it at a personal level. We think about how you do that for 10,000 people.”

In theory, a mobile- and desktop-friendly file sharing system would save workers from having to send documents around as attachments, thus allowing organizations to reduce their overall dependence on e-mail. But while Levie acknowledges that Box’s world is document-centric, he’s less of a purist than Moskovitz or Rosenstein at Asana. The way Levie sees it, a single worker might have different jobs in the course of a day. It’s important to choose the right tool for each job, and e-mail might still be the connective tissue between them.

Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie

Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie

“The way to think about it is, how is it that the software that you live your day out of manifests what you’re working on?” Levie says. “In Salesforce it’s a customer record. In Zendesk it’s a support ticket. In Zuora it’s a customer billing record. So it turns out that in different contexts of our business we have different atomic units of work.”

If the context is a team effort around a document, that’s when a tool like Box may enter the picture. Conceptually, it isn’t all that different from Asana. It’s a platform for communications, except that comments, updates, and assignments are organized around documents rather than tasks.

Box is obviously useful for storing and shuttling the documents themselves, but managing the interactions is where its real value lies, according to Sam Schillace, the company’s senior vice president of engineering. “Nobody writes a document just to have a document,” Schillace says. “You write it to have an interaction with somebody else. It’s ultimately some business outcome you are looking for. Over time, the artifact part breaks down, and we are stripping out everything except the interaction.”

Before he joined Box, Schillace created Writely, the Web-based word processor that became Google Docs. And Google Docs, which is now part of the broader Google Drive office suite, is another leading example of a document-centric collaboration tool, where comments and changes from various users are visible to other users within or alongside the document, in real time (or nearly so).

The more tightly such interactions remain bound to the central document, the less collaborators will need to switch to other communication modes such as e-mail to trade ideas and reach consensus. At Box, Schillace says, “We aren’t just trying to sell hard disk. We are really trying to be this next-generation platform for content and collaboration, where you build your business into it and on top of it.”

In IPO registration papers filed in March, Box said it has 25 million users, including at least one user at 99 percent of the Fortune 500 companies. Some 34,000 organizations pay to use the system.

To get even more customers using the software, and for more time each day, Levie and his team are now aiming to make Box into a tool for generating documents, not just moving them around or revising them. “Today we are a place where you take content you have created somewhere else and you upload it into Box, manually or through synchronization,” Levie says. “In the future we’d like to be much closer to where you are creating that information. There are a lot of benefits when you can get closer. That’s the next wave of innovation you will see from Box.” (The company has delayed its IPO due to market conditions.)

Of course, not every workplace revolves around documents. Says Asana’s Moskovitz, “We have a customer who makes bicycles: Mission Bikes. When they are done you have something you can ride, not a PowerPoint. The idea that a document is always the work product is a very knowledge-worker-centric viewpoint.”

And to be fair, that’s not what Box is arguing. But there are still plenty of companies where collaborating on content is the mission; think of a textbook publisher or an advertising agency. People inside these organizations might use Box for document sharing, Asana for task management, and, yes, e-mail for communicating with customers. “There’s lots of shared ideas and interesting intersections between these technologies,” Levie says. “People will use different solutions in different parts of their lives. There won’t be just one player.”

IV. Time is of the Essence 

One of the strange ironies of the business world is that the more experience, influence, and power a worker accumulates—that is, the farther they rise up the ranks of management—the more time they spend chained to a conference table or a speakerphone. If there’s one business institution people despise even more than e-mail, it’s the meeting.

“If you go to any large company—VMware, Cisco, any large software company— pretty much all of the non-individual contributors are in meetings constantly,” says Raj Singh, founder and CEO of a Menlo Park, CA startup called Tempo AI. “Seventy to 80 percent of everyone’s time is spent in meetings. You hear it all the time: ‘It’s 6 o’clock and I didn’t get anything done today, I was stuck in meetings all day.’”

Why do managers feel they have to go to so many meetings? Why does so little get accomplished? Those are important questions that any large enterprise should be asking itself. But the meeting, as an institution, probably isn’t going to wither away, which raises an interesting question. If so many people structure their days around meetings, then perhaps the meeting—or more generically, the calendar appointment—is another candidate for the atomic unit of work: the organizing principle for everything else going on in a business.

That, in fact, is the view that Singh’s startup Tempo takes. The company belongs to a small sisterhood of spinoffs from SRI International, the Menlo Park R&D lab where the Department of Defense sponsored a groundbreaking artificial-intelligence project in the early 2000s called CALO, for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes. Other products of CALO include Siri, Trapit, Desti, Kuato, and BBVA’s Lola. All are oriented in some way toward using machine learning and natural language processing to observe how people work in information-rich environments and serving up the information they need, when they need it.

Tempo co-founders  Thierry Donneau-Golencer (left), Raj Singh (center), and Corey Hulen (right)

Tempo co-founders Thierry Donneau-Golencer (left), Raj Singh (center), and Corey Hulen (right)

One project within CALO was called Prep Pak, and was designed to scour an individual’s computer or an organization’s servers to locate all the information a person might need to get ready for a meeting. The question behind Prep Pak, says Singh, was “If you take a bunch of disparate data—e-mails, documents, contacts, et cetera—how do you connect them together to improve the preparation of somebody for their next event, and throughout their day?”

SRI hired Singh as an entrepreneur-in-residence and asked him to form a company around the Prep Pak technology. The challenge, he says, was how best to organize and present the information. “We had this ‘Aha’ moment, shortly after we closed our seed round, where we realized, ‘What better dashboard than the calendar itself?,’” Singh says. “The calendar was already what Norman Winarsky [SRI’s vice president of ventures, licensing, and strategic programs] likes to call ‘the expression of intent’: what you are going to do, where you are going to go. Why not pull together the other data and display it alongside the calendar?”

Tempo’s first product, released in February 2013, is a free iPhone app that taps into your existing calendar, e-mail accounts, and contact list, as well as your social media accounts, to present a personalized view of each day’s upcoming events. The screen for a particular meeting might show a list of participants, with contact info for each (including buttons that let the user call or message participants directly). There would also be recent tweets and other status updates from participants; phone numbers and access codes for conference calls; a map to the meeting location; and related e-mails and attachments. If you’re late to a meeting, there’s even a button for mass-texting an “on my way” message to other participants.

The rule at Tempo is “almost zero meetings,” Singh says. But he thinks making meetings more productive is a more realistic goal than trying to get rid of them altogether.

“A lot of people think of meetings as not-work,” he says. “But in your world, it is probably a big part of your work. Where Tempo fits in this picture is, a lot of time is wasted in meetings getting people up to speed. The data is scattered. We can pull that information together automatically to make you better prepared for a meeting, so hopefully you can run a more productive meeting.”

Tempo isn’t designed to eliminate e-mail usage. In fact, it draws on e-mail as a source for documents and contact information. But Singh does believe that the calendar is a better scaffolding for all of the other materials swirling around in the life of the average knowledge worker or manager.

After all, a calendar is just a variation on a task list—one where most of the tasks are collaborative and will occur at a mutually agreed time and place. That makes it a logical framework for a personal-assistant app that’s always ready to tell you where you’re going next, who you’re going to see, and what you need to know.

“The story we pitch is that work revolves around meetings,” Singh says. “Meetings are the center of the universe and should be the pivot point, not the documents and not the e-mail.”

Whether you believe that or not, it’s interesting to ponder what knowledge work might look like if our calendars were the focal point. In my own work, I stay organized using cobbled-together kit of desktop and mobile communications tools such as Apple Calendar, Gmail, Word, WordPress, Facebook, Pocket, Evernote, and old-fashioned Post-it Notes. I’d be happy to hand over more functions to a calendar-centric personal assistant—even if it were a bit of a taskmaster—if it meant I could spend more time thinking and less time combing through my e-mail for meeting-related materials.

V. The Facebookiverse

A brief word about social media inside business organizations. Facebook’s success building a giant advertising business around the idea of the social graph has inspired a number of enterprise-focused imitators, such as Jive, Socialtext, Salesforce’s Chatter, and Microsoft’s Yammer. The central feature in most of these systems is a company-wide social feed, resembling the Facebook News Feed, where personnel share work-related questions and status updates. Each update can become the locus for a conversation where ideas get shared and decisions get made.

Yammer and Jive are careful not to advertise their services as alternatives to e-mail. But many organizations subscribe in the hope that e-mail volume will decrease as more conversations move into the social feed. IT services company Capgemini, for example, claimed in 2011 that it reduced internal e-mail traffic by 40 percent within 18 months of adopting Yammer.

One definite selling point for social systems, says Yammer CEO David Sacks, is the fact that they’re centralized, so they become a forum and knowledge bank for an entire organization. “Yammer allows you to post your question, and people can discover it and answer, or refer it to the person who can,” he told MacWorld in 2012. “There’s nothing discoverable about e-mail. It’s either addressed to you or not.”

So, is it possible that the Facebook-style status update is actually the new atomic unit of work? Well, maybe.

It’s true that the openness and transparency baked into social media technologies are useful solvents in organizations where information is too compartmentalized. As Moskovitz, the Facebook and Asana co-founder, puts it, “The perfect Facebookiverse would be all about frictionless sharing.”

But it’s hard to measure whether this level of sharing actually makes organizations more productive, or whether it simply means that workers spend more time checking their news feeds. “The Yammer value proposition is ‘We reduce e-mail and create archives with searchable, shared access across an organization, resulting in greater productivity,’” says Tempo’s Singh. “But it’s never really been quantified. And the irony is that a lot of these tools generate e-mail to pull you back into the service.”

That last point is, to my mind, the main reason social media tools will never be an e-mail killer. They are, in fact, symbiotic with and to some degree inseparable from e-mail.

According to Cisco’s SenderBase e-mail monitoring network, about 0.1 percent of the 80 billion e-mails sent every day come from Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg and friends just can’t wait to tell you about all the cat videos and other status updates your friends have posted while you were away from the site. Similarly, every update posted to Yammer, Jive, and similar systems generates a cascade of e-mails to notify workers that they should check their office news feeds. Systems like Yammer are properly understood not as a replacement for e-mail, but as part of a multi-channel communications system where the overall volume of messages is probably even higher than before.

VI. It’s Handled

Within the larger church of knowledge work and productivity, it’s likely that only the most devout members of the priesthood will line up behind task-centric systems like Asana. Only publishers and a few other sects could get by with document-centric systems like Box alone. Calendar-based systems like Tempo are useful mainly to the clergy who spend most of their time in meetings. And social systems like Yammer are wonderful tools for the chattering laity, but it’s questionable whether they boost overall commitment and efficiency.

Which leads us back to where we started. In the beginning was the inbox, and the word was e-mail.

In short, e-mail is still the only common system for sharing work-in-progress across organizational boundaries. And as long as we’re stuck with it, we might as well try to make it better.

That’s what venture investor and entrepreneur Shawn Carolan is trying to do at Handle. The San Francisco startup is backed by Menlo Ventures, where Carolan is a managing director. His team is working on a free Web- and mobile-friendly system that lets users process their incoming e-mail faster, while also tapping some of the best ideas from the worlds of task-list management and calendars.

Carolan has been thinking about e-mail and productivity for years. “People have cobbled together systems with string and duct tape,” he says. “They mark messages as unread. They send e-mails to themselves. They flag stuff. They put e-mails on sticky notes. They use Evernote with tags. They have text documents, flat files, paper documents where they cross stuff out and copy it to the next piece. As an investor looking to create value for our investors, this is the perfect type of problem. There are so many people in pain.”

Shawn Carolan, founder and CEO of Handle

Shawn Carolan, founder and CEO of Handle

You can see the basic outlines of Handle’s solution in its Web app for the Safari and Chrome browsers, released last year. The interface combines a classic e-mail inbox with a to-do list and a calendar. It’s designed to help you power through your overloaded inbox faster by making it easy to decide, for each message, whether to reply to it, archive it, delete it, unsubscribe (in the case of spam or unwanted group e-mails), or turn it into a task with a certain priority level.

There are built-in keyboard shortcuts for each action, including 1 for “Must Do,” 2 for “Should Do,” and 3 for “Want To.” Once you learn the shortcuts, you can blast through a stack of e-mail messages very quickly, unless you have to slow down to write actual replies.

The central idea in Handle is that knowledge workers need separate buckets for e-mail messages and tasks, but that these buckets should be part of a single app. Otherwise too much time is lost switching contexts.

“E-mail is everyone’s number one source of tasks,” Carolan says. “I can’t tell you how many people say to me, I put this stuff in Things [a popular task manager for Mac and iOS], and then I got anxious and went back into e-mail and abandoned it, because it wasn’t the trusted system. With an outside task management system there is just a lot of friction going back and forth.”

Emptying your inbox is only half the point of Handle. Once that’s done, it’s time to go back to your task list and start tackling the jobs stacking up there. That takes real work—and the company is working on ways to make it easier—but at least each task will be classified and prioritized.

“Peter Drucker, I think, was the one who put it pretty articulately: the challenge of knowledge work these days is not knowing how to do something, it’s knowing what to do,” Carolan says. “Our goal is to get you to the point where everything that came in was characterized.”

Indeed, Carolan prefers to call Handle a “priority engine” rather than an e-mail client or a task manager. “It’s not about getting to inbox zero,” he says. “It’s about helping you finish the two or three things that are the most important to you today, by having one list.”

Handle’s Web app hasn’t evolved much since the company unveiled it at TechCrunch Disrupt in April 2013. That’s mainly because the company has been busy building smartphone and tablet versions of the app, according to Carolan. Over half of all e-mails get opened first on a mobile device, he says. “When do you first see a piece of information and when does it become actionable? Both of those speak to a mobile use case.”

Sometime after the mobile apps are published, Handle will start experimenting with premium add-on services that busy knowledge workers might pay for. Whether the next version of Handle can actually pry a large number of users away from Outlook, Yahoo Mail, Apple Mail, Gmail, and other familiar e-mail clients will come down to the usual questions facing app makers: Does it have a slick design and a few killer features? Will Apple and/or Google anoint it as a top application in their app stores? Can it generate lasting buzz? But there’s at least one new multi-billion-dollar company lurking somewhere in the e-mail, calendar, and task management market, Carolan says, and he thinks Handle has a shot. “I would not be doing this if I didn’t think that,” he says.

E-mail will never die, Carolan predicts, because it is “nothing more and nothing less than asynchronous communication between people. That’s why we say embrace and extend e-mail, don’t try to run away from it. Everybody who tries that fails.”

That idea doesn’t make me happy. I’d like to see something better come along. That being said, an asynchronous medium like e-mail is a whole lot easier to live with than a synchronous one like the telephone. If we had to answer the phone every time it rang—if every message required an instant reply—we’d have no control at all over our time or attention. And those may be the scarcest resources of all.

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  • Christopher Noble

    Congratulations on a well-researched article on a compelling topic.