Sunday, March 25, 2012

Email as a Todo List Protocol?

Can we reframe email as a todo list protocol, rather than a messaging system? Paul Graham pitches this as a frighteningly ambitious startup idea:
"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. 
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."
I agree that something needs to be done. If you're an information worker, you're likely suffering from email hell, and not having to triage messages for actionable items sounds awesome.

Yet I think there are two major problems to solve.

First, not all emails are todo items: They can be messages or photos from friends, bacon with offers that you legitimately subscribed to, or updates to calm the waters - hey, just letting you know I'm working on this." While you could build a system that is half messaging and half todo list, but if it doesn't support these patterns, people will use the system in addition to email, not as a replacement for it.

The second, much larger problem is this: If you build a great task management app like Asana and send out email updates when of task progress, you makes the inbox even less bearable. Thus you have to create an entirely new inbox concept - a new type of place - which users aren't yet familiar with. Getting larger companies to adopt something unfamiliar is very hard.

I'm optimistic that email can be reformatted around actionable items rather than unsolicited messages. The winner in this game will be a company that can (1) build a great new experience that is backwards compatible to the way we use email and (2) has a great plan to ease users into the new system so they can get adoption.

Undiscoverable Features

We spend a fair amount of time at work discussing the discoverability of features. What's a great feature if the average user can't find it or doesn't know it's there? (Android's biggest discoverability offender, the Menu button, was finally laid to rest with ICS.)

My favorite example for an undiscoverable feature is on the iPhone. (I still use an iPhone for running with Nike+.) When you're running with and hit the "lock" button, the screen turns on to show this:

I bet you didn't know that you can swipe left-to-right on this screen to advance to the next track? (Or vice versa.) You don't see any visual feedback of what's about to happen. I only discovered this by accident after trying to figure out why I kept skipping to the next song.

The best way to fix this would be to add some visual feedback on touchDown - just show a slider with a >>| target on the right, and you're done. Users would notice this the first time they touch the locked screen, and could understand the effect of the swipe.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Now on the Android Team

About a month and a half ago, I switched to the Android team here at Google where I'm the Product Manager for some system and UI features that you should see in the next release of Android and beyond.

I now report to Hugo Barra who you have seen in many presentations demoing new features of the OS. Android is a fascinating place inside Google. It runs at a much higher pace than the rest of the company. Because Android is open source and runs on devices that are built by someone else, you get much more exposure to the outside world than on a team that builds products on a Google infrastructure and no outside dependencies. I'm learning a lot.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Samwer Brothers

Having grown up in Germany, this piece in BusinessWeek about the Samwer brothers sparked some thoughts. For those of you who haven't heard, the Samwers are three brothers started a string of successful web businesses in Germany by copying one successful US web startup after another. I can remember buying something off their first website -, an eBay clone - back when I was in high school in 1999. It was their first exit and was acquired by eBay for a $43 million. They have since made billions.

To someone like myself in the US startup community, the idea of the Samwer brothers sounds terrifying. Imagine you're a startup founder and your new company is just taking off. Suddenly, a Samwer clone comes along and gobbles up your European market way before you can get there - you'll end up having to buy it later for a lot of money. This has happened to Groupon with CityDeal, and it looks like it's happening to Airbnb and Zappos.

Why does their approach work?

Let's say your Silicon Valley based startup just became successful and proved out their business model. Now you has to deal with fundraising, hiring, and scaling to new users. International expansion gets put off until you have more time to breathe. Meanwhile, the Samwer brothers activate the clone machine. While you're struggling to recruit engineers in the talent jungle of Silicon Valley, the Samwer brothers redeploy existing resources and follow the models they've learned from other startups.

Another key factor is that it's easy for US founders to overlook opportunities in other developed countries. I'm not sure if this is because of the psychological draw of American exceptionalism or a genuine lack of awareness of the Internet landscape in other countries, but it's a clear blind spot. Germany, the Samwer brothers' home base, is a great country to target: High purchasing power, high-speed Internet widely available[*], and a large target market of people who all speak the same language and are technophile.

Finally, Germany has a great talent pool of technical people and a comparative dearth of interesting tech companies to work for: If you're a talented engineer, you can't go work for Airbnb or Zappos, so why not go work for the respective Samwer clone?

I've always believed that great entrepreneurs find and exploit the shortcuts to success in a system. It turns out that taking established business ideas from the US to Germany is one of these shortcuts, and you have to respect the Samwers for finding it.


[*] To illustrate, my brother lives in a small town in Germany and his Internet connection is substantially faster than what I can get from Comcast near downtown San Francisco.