Inbox 2.0 – I Think it’s Too Late to Matter for Social Networking (but fix them anyway)

I’ve been reading a few of these posts about Inbox 2.0 and the “Biggest Social Graphs” and they line up with some things I’ve been thinking as well. I’ve posted two blurbs recently on email and social networking – you can read them here and here.

Overall, I do agree that email inboxes do contain a lot of interesting data about people and how frequently they communicate over email and potentially IM if a vendor offers both products in an integrated fashion. That being said, I don’t see how any of the top web email providers (Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google) can use this email information to build new social networking products. There is, however, an opportunity to use that data to power other people’s applications.

What additional value would I get in using one of these systems over Facebook, MySpace, or my current social network of choice? Details on these products are sketchy at best. However, almost any social networking product worth its salt has a contact importer. Once a user imports his/her contacts, he or she can then determine who from that subset of people he/she would like to invite. Is having a machine prompt to do this for personal social networking of great value? I can see the utility of this auto-population or auto-discovery in a work context (Xobni does do a good job of showing me my own correspondence patterns and I can imagine many things you could build on top of that data – the work use case is different as I think work communication patterns tend to be more dynamic than personal ones). Nothing I’ve heard in the limited details that have come out gives me reason to think that they’re on to something bigger.

I’d also say that if “powering up” this network requires me to create a new profile page, it’s a non-started. I’m out of that business for now unless or until I see a really great application that’s worth the time.

Webmail inboxes are a mess – I have yet to use an email product that has an even decent address book. All of the email address book offerings from the Big 3 email providers feel really dated. For example, the Gmail address book does not do a very good job of de-duplicating contacts. I have folks in my address book who have multiple entries and I’m not interested in going through to manually de-duplicate them; I’m counting on a machine to do that for me.

The larger point here is that I don’t know how you can build a really good, effective social networking product on top of email if you don’t do something to put some good, quality structure around the data. Social networking services who are sucking up email addresses to match a user’s inbox with their database of contacts don’t have the same problem – you just throw away the ones that don’t match (or allow a user to invite them). It’s a very different situation if you want to build a whole new social network product with email as the foundation.

Cross-functional collaboration is not easy inside of large companies – This is a fairly obvious point, but big companies are notorious for having internal challenges when it comes to cross-product collaboration. When one of the products in question is email, I don’t imagine that will be an easy conversation – nobody wants to play around with an interface that touches tens or hundreds of millions worldwide.

Think about the refresh cycles for webmail systems. How often do Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or Hotmal get updated? Not that often, and I have to think that touching those interfaces requires a lot of signoff and a strong conviction that the proposed changes will positively impact a wide number of people. Otherwise, you might end up with angry users. I have a hard time seeing any of these companies acting aggressively with one of their web crown jewels.

The end game ought to be to make this information available to other services and make mail the data platform, not build new applications. Sadly, I don’t think that’s a very interesting business to be in – I don’t know how you re-establish yourself as a major player in social networking by simply providing the data layer that powers other applications.