Reading Paul Graham on the Re-invention of Email


It’s usually wise to start with a line from Paul Graham:

The most dangerous way to lose time is not to spend it having fun, but to spend it doing fake work… Dealing with email, for example. You do it sitting at a desk. It’s not fun. So it must be work.

It’s wise not only because PG is the startup godfather these days. Also because he invented the idea for the most widely deployed spamfilter strategy out there in a casual blog post. (The Bayesian bot approach.)

In a few casual blog posts he throws out some ideas about email.

More recently he put out a manifesto of startup ideas. The short version of the email idea is recapped here in a later summation:

Why is your inbox overflowing? Because you get a lot of email, or because it’s hard to get email out of your inbox? Why do you get so much email? What problems are people trying to solve by sending you email? Are there better ways to solve them? And why is it hard to get emails out of your inbox? Why do you keep emails around after you’ve read them? Is an inbox the optimal tool for that?

But the longer version is this one below, in a list of a bunch of ideas he thinks are big exciting topics to work on for YC people. The amazing result in the last 6 months is suddenly there is a TON of innovation around email. So much! Annotations and a list of products I am interested in below.

2. Replace Email

Email was not designed to be used the way we use it now. Email is not a messaging protocol. It’s a todo list. Or rather, my inbox is a todo list, and email is the way things get onto it. But it is a disastrously bad todo list.

He is exaggerating a little. Yeah every mail is something “to do”, but some mails are things requiring following — a thoughtful reply, an action somewhere offline, a call, a meeting — and other emails are actually pure messages back and forth. So that big subset of emails in your inbox are the todo list. Another thing: because todos and ‘new mail’ both require daily, frequent attention, the routines around them are similar.

I’m open to different types of solutions to this problem, but I suspect that tweaking the inbox is not enough, and that email has to be replaced with a new protocol. This new protocol should be a todo list protocol, not a messaging protocol, although there is a degenerate case where what someone wants you to do is: read the following text.

Here he basically dismisses what EVERYBODY I have seen in this area is trying. They are putting  a todo list carveout next to email. Basically they are fixing Gmail and going back to the product vision of MS Outlook (the desktop mega-app of the late 90s).

The PG argument is rather that todos should be fixed the way Calendar is addressed. People are not overwhelmed with scheduling activity in their email where they are constantly re-reviewing “who am I meeting today???”. There is some scheduling banter yes, but then it goes in a calendar 30box UI which is easy to review and reminders/changes are all handled. Great.

Could todos be like this? Some startups are doing that. The task list is an easy idea and from there you add sharing/assigning/tracking/list-groups and other obvious features. Hmm. Is that the answer? Already so much more complexity.

As a todo list protocol, the new protocol should give more power to the recipient than email does. I want there to be more restrictions on what someone can put on my todo list. And when someone can put something on my todo list, I want them to tell me more about what they want from me. Do they want me to do something beyond just reading some text? How important is it? (There obviously has to be some mechanism to prevent people from saying everything is important.) When does it have to be done?

An interesting view — basically a todo list is a long list with priority (as all are…) and people can insert something onto this list the way they can insert into an inbox. And you can just decline. Just like a calendar invite actually. No, another time, different place, etc.

Important difference (at least in my world): invites are fewer than todos. There are a lot of bloody todos. The process overhead on turning this queue into the real task list seems heavy.

This is one of those ideas that’s like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. On one hand, entrenched protocols are impossible to replace. On the other, it seems unlikely that people in 100 years will still be living in the same email hell we do now. And if email is going to get replaced eventually, why not now?

Maybe I was misreading him above. Does he really think email is just a todo list? Surely this is wrong. You get messages. I’ll stick with my view — a big chunk of what happens in email should happen in something else. The way Craigslist is an omnibus.

If you do it right, you may be able to avoid the usual chicken and egg problem new protocols face, because some of the most powerful people in the world will be among the first to switch to it. They’re all at the mercy of email too.

—> Big point for any startup! Make something awesome, productive, techie and cutting edge and the rich and famous will try you first. They are out there lusting for this stuff. If they use it, they will do the work of popularizing it for you.

Whatever you build, make it fast. GMail has become painfully slow.[2] If you made something no better than GMail, but fast, that alone would let you start to pull users away from GMail.


GMail is slow because Google can’t afford to spend a lot on it.

This is not right. Slow because it is bloated with strategy stuff (Google Plus, Docs, etc)

But people will pay for this. I’d have no problem paying $50 a month. Considering how much time I spend in email, it’s kind of scary to think how much I’d be justified in paying. At least $1000 a month. If I spend several hours a day reading and writing email, that would be a cheap way to make my life better.

This is probably right too — there is a pricing model (for enterprise at least) that would make zillions from a better email client. The problem though is how to get lock in? If all you make is a UI for Gmail, then a free clone or Gmail will do it too. If you make a better email/messaging/todo protocol entirely…well that’s interesting. I wonder how you will do it! Hide the rules in the headers maybe.


Anyway, I suspect everybody who matters read or heard about the post, and anybody in the email biz read the above. As a result there seem to be a bunch of big company and small company projects going guns-blazing on email. You can see if you eyeball these just how influential the “hey it’s about tasks” advice has been –> half these apps are full-built management apps. That was a great Outlook feature that never made it into Yahoo Mail/Hotmail/Gmail.

AltoMail from AOL



MandrillApp and mailchimp stuff

Gmail continues to try hard (they bought Sparrow)

Mailbox from the Orchestra guys


Boring players like ReturnPath are pulling in the teams from OtherInbox and

The InboxLove conference in year 2


So are they solving it?

I don’t think anybody is quite doing what he recommends here. But you sure can tell folks are going bananas for email innovation right now.

Meanwhile, a bunch of folks are re-inventing tasks instead:






It’s really wild! It’s all basically Gmail for Tasks (give or take)

Not at all a replacement for email. It’s another world. Maybe this is the right thing.


More on this later. But I will stick with my one aha from this survey: there is an example of a “used to be by zillion emails but it works better now” application –> calendar. Especially inside organizations. But for changing/updating/remindering and even in some cases booking calendar stuff, you don’t need to write too many emails.

Maybe an approach like this will work for tasks.




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