If you've ever frantically tried to find an important email on your phone, you've no doubt confronted the ugly truth about email in the mobile era: Our inboxes have simply become too bloated and confusing to be efficiently managed when time is tight.
Both Google and Microsoft recently revealed new products -- Inbox and Delve, respectively -- that are designed to help users cut through the noise. Though quite different in implementation, both products project the same philosophy -- that email should be more social, agile, and personalized than it is today.
To create this smarter email experience, each company is integrating machine learning into its product. The promise to users is that they won't have to wade through thousands of inbox messages when looking for important content; rather, they'll be able to rely on contextually aware email products to automatically surface the right information at the right moment. As such, Microsoft and Google aren't merely experimenting with new apps; each is also hoping to demonstrate that its backend engine is the best equipped to learn how people work and to provide intelligent assistance.
Despite ostensibly similar aims, the companies are approaching the issue from opposing directions. With Inbox, which is currently available only by invitation, Google is focused on consumers, with no word yet on when the new app might support enterprise accounts. Microsoft, in contrast, is currently rolling out Delve only to Office 365 customers, without word when the technology might trickle down to the company's consumer services. Delve is also currently available only for desktops, with mobile support coming later, whereas Inbox is available for both mobile devices and (via the Chrome browser) PCs, with an emphasis on the former.
The apps also offer different levels of functionality, with Delve providing more options to dig into and explore content. But UI differences and feature set depth aside, Delve and Inbox are built on many of the same ideas.
Neither product is designed to replace email, per se, but rather to provide a new way to interact with the content that accrues in our inboxes. Both products also feature a social-inspired interface, with information collected into a newsfeed-like stream. This UI not only lets users see important information with a quick glance, but also redefines email organization. Rather than displaying messages chronologically, each product instead attempts to bundle messages into useful collections, and to show content when it's useful, not just as it arrives in the inbox.
Delve, for example, can recognize when a user is headed to a meeting. Using calendar information, it can also see other meeting attendees and agenda notes. Using this information, Delve automatically generates notes that the user can review while walking to the meeting. Inbox, meanwhile, might recognize that the user has a set a reminder to make a reservation at a particular restaurant or that an email references a flight-departure time. When the reminder comes due, the app would not only notify the user, but also present useful information, such as the restaurant's phone number. Similarly, when it's time to leave for the airport, Inbox might provide directions or the flight number.
[Want to know more about Microsoft's email approach? See Microsoft Wants to Kill Email Attachments.]
Both apps also require a degree of user trust. Inbox is in many ways a combination of Google Now and Gmail, which means that the app will only learn when to present useful information if users share their locations and inbox contents with Google's algorithms. To provide useful and timely content, Microsoft's Delve similarly needs to know when and on what the user is working, and with whom she's collaborating.
It's also notable that both apps are cross-platform plays, rather than attempts by Google and Microsoft to fortify their respective OS ecosystems. Apple has also been implementing email improvements, such as the "handoff" feature that lets users began a message on one device and seamlessly continue on another. But Apple's aim is to ingrain users in its first-party ecosystem, whereas Microsoft and Google, evidently more interested in simply amassing users, have more firmly separated their email efforts from their OS projects.
By choosing to target different sorts of customers, Google and Microsoft might be setting the stage for tensions down the line. At this point, Delve is arguably more polished and fully featured; beyond email, it also displays content trending around the user, such as documents that collaborators have shared. If Microsoft's machine learning fabric is as good as advertised, the app could significantly change the way people organize their work schedules. But by focusing on consumers, Google could achieve a larger user base relatively quickly. If Inbox gains traction, businesses could to face more of the same "Bring Your Own" challenges they do today -- e.g., the organization wants to use Delve, but many employees are already accustomed to using Inbox.
Granted, Delve is at this point much more enterprise-focused, but if there's any type of product that tends to blur the line between our home and work lives, it's email. Microsoft no doubt knows that Delve will spread into users' personal lives; indeed, consumer products such as Windows Phone assistant Cortana rely on some of the same machine learning technologies as Delve, and shows that Microsoft is already thinking of ways to apply its new ideas on both sides of the consumer-professional divide. Google, meanwhile, has always gone after businesses by playing up its widespread consumer adoption -- and if Inbox is a popular hit, some version of the app will surely appear for businesses.
These are early days for both products, and it remains to be seen if either lives up to its creator's ambitions. Microsoft and Google have more resources than most companies, but they'll face potential disruption from hungry email startups. Apps such as Mailbox and Zoho already implement some of the ideas that Google is promoting with Inbox, such as closer integration between reminders and emails. But with big players focusing more effort on email, workflows will likely change sooner than later. Will modern email apps make enterprise workers more efficient? Will a consumer app such as Inbox create IT management challenges? Sound off in the comments to let us know what you think.
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