“Inbox 2.0″ – It’s not just social!

Saul Hansell’s Inbox 2.0: Yahoo and Google to Turn E-Mail Into a Social Network article in the New York Times last week has surfaced a great discussion.  The initial flurry was about whether Google and Yahoo will successfully leverage the inbox to build a new social graph and  knock Facebook off its pedestal.  While I can appreciate the appeal of this for Joe Kraus at Google and Brad Garlinghouse at Yahoo, for me as a simple citizen of the net, this is a bit of a yawner.  Sure, I have my gripes, but Facebook generally meets my needs for a “social graph” just fine.  To get me excited, I need something more than another social graph.  I need something better.  Fortunately, recently some folks have started a more nuanced discussion about the power of the inbox to solve other interesting problems.  (see Deva Hazarika’s The Four A’s of Inbox 2.0 and Brad Feld’s Where is Microsoft in this Party? among others).

The common ground in this discussion is the growing realization that the inbox is incredibly underappreciated.  Far from dying, (see discussion on Valleywag’s The decline and fall of email), it is the most comprehensive repository around of information on me as a person, what I think and how I interact with the world.  Properly interpreted, it can tell stories about what interests me, what I buy, where I shop, who I work and socialize with, where I go, what organizations I belong to and a host of other revealing tidbits.  Today, all this information is there, but it isn’t useful as it is locked in dumb text or static HTML.

This is a shame because with even a modest understanding of some of the above dimensions of “me”, there is a universe of interesting services that I would find really helpful.  For example, this understanding could inform relevant recommendations, help me source interesting news, help me stay more connected to people I care about (or better yet, help me avoid the communications I don’t care about), sort out my bills and finances, and generally provide the foundation for intelligent agents that will do a lot of tasks I generally find a chore.

At TripIt, we are trying to unlock some of this information and create a new kind of service.  While it would be wonderful to answer all of the above questions, we’ve chosen to take a vertical approach and focus on travel.  In addition to being an area we know and are passionate about, the vertical approach has enabled us to efficiently solve certain complex technical and usability problems.  For TripIt as a new venture, travel is a category that touches almost everyone and one of the largest industries in the world.  We believe is that email is the starting point for developing a rich understanding of me as a traveler.  Today, TripIt uses this understanding to automate simple tasks (updating calendars, notifying friends & colleagues) and aggregate relevant content (maps, weather, destination information).  In the future, this will be the platform for even more exciting offerings.

Fortunately, the incredibly valuable information that resides in email won’t remain locked up forever.  The rewards are simply too great.  Whether it is TripIt helping to make travel easier or some other services delivering solutions to other interesting problems, I see a wave of innovation coming that will to result in useful services for us all.

If you know of other companies working to unlock the power of email, please let me know.

- Gregg