The Evolutionary Impact of Email on Modern Software

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Delve into the transformative influence of email on today's software ecosystem. A historical perspective.

Vendr | Email is where new software features get invented.
Written by
Austin Petersmith
Published on
April 20, 2023
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Email is where new software features get invented. Web apps, push notifications, software as a status symbol�they each started with email. And it�s fascinating to consider how a tool invented in 1965 by MIT�s programming staff is still shaping how we interact with software today.

The Genesis of Email

The idea for email came when MIT programmers were reading documentation and wished they could send criticisms to the author. "A new command should be written to allow a user to send a private message to another user which may be delivered at the receiver's convenience," wrote the team. They also foresaw email as a notifications inbox.

Perfection is Still Pending

Despite numerous attempts to improve email over the decades, perfection remains elusive. Google, Microsoft, BlackBerry, and others have tried and often succeeded in pushing the email envelope but never in perfecting it.

Web Apps

Hotmail was one of the first web apps most people used. Visiting hotmail.com was sufficient to send and receive emails from any computer. This revolutionized software, turning it into a service accessible from every browser and device.

Email as a Status Symbol

Hotmail's footer essentially marketed the service with every email sent. This trick has been emulated by various brands, transforming software into a status symbol. Brands like Superhuman have gone further by charging $30/month, elevating the user's status to someone who finds their time valuable enough to pay for email.

Bundling and Unbundling

Microsoft Outlook was the epitome of feature bundling, including email, contacts, calendar, and more. Modern email solutions like Superhuman and Hey are going the opposite route: focusing only on email to ensure less is indeed more.

Notifications and Always-On Software

The BlackBerry was instrumental in making email addictive by pioneering push notifications. Today, this feature is ubiquitous, and we can�t seem to escape it. Some modern email apps are trying to offer a more disciplined approach to notifications.

The End of Files

Gmail revolutionized how we perceive files. By offering abundant storage and encouraging archiving instead of deleting, Gmail allowed users to become digital packrats. The concept of tags further revolutionized the organization, making folders obsolete.

Developer Features in Consumer Apps

Gmail and Superhuman popularized features like keyboard shortcuts and command palettes, making them essential elements in modern consumer software.

A New Focus on Privacy

As privacy concerns rise, email remains at the forefront of the debate. Free email services were often criticized for asking too much personal information. Google shifted the paradigm by offering ad-supported email, which also had its own set of privacy issues. More recent players like Hey are focusing on user privacy, a trend we might see in other apps as well.

Features for a Lifetime

Various other features like flags, swipes, and snoozing were also popularized by email, influencing both email apps and to-do list tools.

Conclusion

Email has been an underappreciated yet monumental driving force in the software industry. It has served as the testbed for many innovations that we now consider standard in modern software. From web apps to privacy concerns, email continues to lead the way, proving that even after decades, it�s a medium far from stagnation.

Austin Petersmith
VP of Growth and Community
Austin is the Vice President of Growth & Community at Vendr. He works on new initiatives aimed at bringing our community together and creating efficiency and transparency in SaaS.

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