It was over 20 years ago now. I was a young hotshot IT guy and the company I was working for needed to communicate to Asia and Eastern Europe. My boss latched on to a Novell MHS (Mail Handling System)-based solution called Coordinator by Action Technologies. Coordinator was later sold to DaVinci which at that time sold a competing product in the Novell MHS-based email world. It was truly a store and forward time when we would deliver messages through CompuServe -- in addition to direct international long distance phone calls.
The important part of the Coordinator software was that it was based on the ideas in the book "On Computers and Cognition" by Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd. What made it unique was that it mapped email messages into a set of different types of communication, which matched the idea that an organization is a network of commitments and most messages are seeking some sort of a commitment. Sometimes the commitment request was for an answer and other times for a meeting or an action. As a part of sending a message you specified when you needed a response and the system automatically managed reminders for those things -- and removed those reminders when folks responded.
The net effect of the system was that you could really use the email program as a way to manage your tasks -- and your commitments with your coworkers. It was amazing and I can still feel the impact of having started with Coordinator as a mail system I used. Today, I still treat my inbox as a “to do” list. If you send me an email I’ll triage it into an immediate response, a thing to file, or something that I’ll have to spend more time and energy to respond to.
All of this comes to mind as there’s been some fanfare response to IBM’s Mail Next announcement at their Connections conference. While it’s clear that this tool is still very much vaporware, it’s a powerful reimagining of the typical mail experience that we’re used to today.
Everything Old is New Again
Looking at IBM’s Mail Next, I saw the tasks front and center (ok, bottom center) in the dashboard-like display of its interface. I flashed back to the main screen in the Coordinator. I realized that email had again become so overwhelming that it is necessary to refocus on the things that we need to get done -- not just clearing out our inbox from the spam that is generated.