Email Isn’t Broken, Email Clients Are!

A “Hello” Sign
Photo by Adam Solomon on Unsplash

There’s a lot of talk about how email is broken and how some intend to fix it. The term “email” is loaded in-that it could be referring to the “message” being sent (e.g. “did you receive my email”), the email service or client application (e.g. “we sent the receipt last week, check your email”), or any of the three major email protocols (e.g. “do you understand how email works”). Email as a protocol for electronically transmitting messages is fine (for the most part). The thing we often rage against is the applications used to access those messages.

You can’t fix this problem at the protocol level, it’s an application-level problem.

You wouldn’t say “the Web” is broken (or HTTP for those reading who happen to be technologists). Actually some of you (of the HTTPS all-the-things variety) might but that’s beside the point. The real problem with email is managing the massive volume received in a way that’s relatively sane. You can’t fix this problem at the protocol level, it’s an application-level problem. The only real solution to dealing with massive amounts of email is automation (maybe even massive amounts of it). The uninitiated might be shocked to realize how much preprocessing their email messages undergo before they make it to the inbox, researching spam filtering is a great way to get a glimpse into what’s happening, but it’s not enough because it’s not personalized in a way that’s truly effective for the end-user.

Personally, I find it very strange that automation isn’t the preeminent feature of all email clients. To be clear, I’m not talking about behind-the-scenes machine-learning algorithms for spam filtering, but more practical, simple things, like “(single-click) block everything from this domain forever”, or “(single-click) block this person from this domain forever” or “(single-click) match this email pattern and hide from my inbox” or “(single-click) auto-folder these types of emails, based on (domain, recipient, user-defined label)” or “(single-click) only allow this domain to email me twice per month”, etc, etc.

Recently, there’s been a proliferation of email services popping up, most notably being Hey given their high-praise and Apple App Store controversy, Spike, Newton, Superhuman, TwoBird, and more. Though Gmail isn’t new it is, for some, the defacto standard email client. Each service brings a fresh perspective and a unique approach to dealing with email in our everyday lives, ranging from offering additional features such as notes and todo lists to differing workflows and intelligently arranging what’s visible and when. With all of what’s on offer, I can’t help but feel that they’ve all completely missed the mark, and to illustrate that let me pose a simple question and thought experiment!

“You have 5,000 unread, unacknowledged, email messages, 3,250 have been spam filtered, leaving 1,750 remaining. Assuming that some messages caught by the spam filter are false-positives and at-least 300 unread messages are from unique senders, … what’s the best way to handle the unacknowledged emails, clear the annoying unread counter-label, and be confident that you haven’t missed anything important?”

I contend that user-augmented automation is the solution and I believe that if there were an email client with “don’t make me think” automation as a core feature, it would be a clear winner and set the trend for what future email clients should be. What do you think?


The HEY Way — HEY

‘Hey’ creator on fighting Apple’s App Store policies — YouTube

Email Is Not Broken — Kev Quirk

My Take on Email — Freddy’s Ramblings

Email Is Broken — Mike Stone

Keep Productive — YouTube

Gmail — Email from Google

HEY — Email at its best, new from Basecamp.

Spike — Email with Team Chat, Notes, To Do Lists, Calendar


Newton Mail — Email app for iOS, Android, Mac & Windows




Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Al Newkirk

Your API engineering expert, specializing in scalable microservice architectures. Ask me about #APIs, SOAs, and the future of software engineering.