Eric Allman on Email Overload

October 19, 2006 at 9:02 am | Posted in Attention Management | Leave a comment

Eric Allman, co-creator of the SMTP protocol and currently at Sendmail, did a Q&A session with Lee Gomes of the Wall St. Journal on Tuesday (10/17/2006 B3) where he was asked about email overload. The article is online for subscribers only, but here is a relevent excerpt:

“… we’re going to need … a new generation of tools to help us with our mailboxes. In the old days, an executive would have a secretary that would read all of his mail, so only the important stuff would get through.

“I think there can be a generation of tools that learn what I consider important and present it to me. But I am talking in two years from now. This is a very hard problem, and it will not happen overnight”.

I find the secretary analogy quite common and apt. I “invented” it myself – before seeing it three other places in print.

But I disagree on a few other statements. First is that there “can be a generation of tools to learn what I consider important …”. There already is a generation of tools to do this (personalization, portals, recommendation engines, browsing sidebars), but success is a matter of degree. They help, but can never come close to fully learning what is important to you. And as you spend more time teaching the tool, you climb a cost/benefit curve that stops well short of 75% accuracy.

I strongly disagree with the “two years” time frame. I agree with Mr. Allman that it is very hard and will not happen soon, but to me that implies that there will just be a next generation of attempts in 2 years that will still be inadequate. I would expect the first reasonably successful generation (3rd or 4th) in 10 years or more.

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