[Photo Credit: Lisa Phillips]

A popular refrain in email client land is that if you don't build all 80,000 features of Outlook into your client, it will never get anywhere. Most recently this was voiced in David's Inbox Love Post:

From Baydin / Boomerang who have done both add-ins and rich clients: "Without autocomplete, attachments, good rendering, and 80,000 other things, your email client is dead."

The more that I hear it the more I think it's wrong. It's not that your client needs to include all the features of existing email clients--it's that it needs all the really important ones, plus one new, noticeable feature that compensates for all the stuff you didn't implement.

To wit, here are some successful applications that were not full-featured, but had 1-2 unique, compelling features:


  • missing: message flag followup dates/reminders, delivery receipts, public folders, multiple signatures, social integration (other than G+), automatic folders/labels, contact directory
  • key features: simple UI, available everywhere

Back in 2004 Gmail was released as a beta, and it was missing a wealth of features that Outlook has, such as tasks and calendars. It now has Calendars, but it still has far fewer features than Outlook (for example, there's only like 8 ways to filter something). Nonetheless, people flocked to it, and today, it's the only webmail client that continues to add users (423 million as of June). The reasons: 1) the interface is simple, 2) it has threading by conversation, 3) labels instead of folders, and--this is a big one--4) access from anywhere.

Google Docs:

  • Missing: plain text file support, offline editing (supposedly imminent), default layouts, Google's own web fonts, formatting preservation
  • Key features: collaboration, accessibility

Five years ago, when the only real things out there were Office and OpenOffice (and StarOffice, and something else that people actually used, but I can't remember what it was called), people thought that there was no way you could use a word processing app or spreadsheet if it didn't have all the 400 bajillion things Word and Excel have. And then, along came Google Docs, and people started using it, and now a lot of people really only use it. And there are two big reasons for that: 1. It's $150 cheaper; 2. it supports collaboration. (And I guess there's a third that allowed it to trump all the other things like ZoHo, which is that it was made by Google and appeared in the top bar for everyone who used Google to search).

The second reason is really important. It is substantially more worthwhile to me to be able to easily share a document with my friends, without having to email it back and forth all the time than it is to have a bunch of marginally useful features.

iPhone mail

  • missing: so much
  • key feature: can check and compose emails from anywhere.

This one, I feel, is the biggest testament to the argument that people will start using an additional product with a reduced feature set. It's probably easier to list the set of features that it does have than those it's missing. Want to view old emails? I have to search for them. Want fancy formatting when writing an email? Sorry, no can do. But the iPhone's email app has one incredibly powerful feature: I don't have to travel to a computer with an internet connection to check my email. I could wait until I get home to write an email, and then I could make it all stylish, or, I could write it NOW and be done. Legions have gone with the latter.  

Aaand, some not-so-successful email clients that lacked a standout feature:

Sparrow I love Sparrow and I still use it, but what does it really buy me, other than prettiness? It works offline (because that happens a lot, and I have stuff to do with my email that doesn't involve internet *sarcasm*). The iPhone version has slightly better label support, but it looses landscape mode on email bodies. And it's not free. And the label support in general is worse than Gmail's.

Fluent.io Fluent's big sell was its "streams," which turned emails into easily scrollable, Facebook-like conversations with inline reply and a one-click email-to-task conversion. The concept intrigued people (70,000 signed up for the waitlist), but Fluent's unique url and emphasis on building feature parity with Gmail instead of building "a single forcing function to switch" led to its shuttering well before the beta was made public.  

What these examples (should) mean for Gander:

Right now, two new, non full-featured clients attracting some attention are the rather similar Taskbox and Mail Pilot. Their success hinges, I think, on one question: Is having my emails behave like tasks a feature so useful that I'll miss it if I go back to Gmail and have to deal with the mess that is unread state?

We could pose the same question (do I miss the Respond/Read/Skim categorization if I return to my previous client?) in a month's time. Or, we could spend years replicating every single feature of Gmail and Outlook.

History argues for the former, and so do I.