Saul Hansell at the New York Times gets some people talking at Google and Yahoo! for a write up today on the future of the inbox. It's a good article, based mostly on words from Brad "Peanut Butter" Garlinghouse at Yahoo! The gist of what execs from both companies say is this: the future of both email and start pages is in social networking. Much of the discussion comes back to Facebook. Hansell's post looked far into the development future of existing products - and it's a fun read.
I would contend that what's really at issue here are two concepts that Hansell and the execs didn't name explicitly, but which will be familiar to most of the readers here. RSS and Attention Data.
Down With RSS - Up With RSS!
In the future, Yahoo! mail will include a feed of info about your friends' activities, just like Facebook.
Remember when the Facebook minifeed came out? It's a wonder no one engaged in ritual self-imolation outside the company's offices. People hated it. Now everyone, including MySpace, is adding friend feeds to the profile pages on their sites. It's a brilliant idea. It's essentially RSS is what it is.
RSS has changed my life, maybe it's changed yours too. I'm not sure what I'd be doing for a living if it weren't for Simple Syndication. Hoping you'd remember to visit this blog to read about what I've found after a day of manual searches? Probably not. That said, people in general have not gone Facebook/MySpace crazy for RSS. Rather, it took Facebook to introduce people to RSS in a way that was really compelling.
There's a long list of startups aimed at the feed-driven lifestreaming/social streaming space. Most also ask for your email login. If Yahoo! can acquire some elegance and integrate it well, they could own all of this space and make the word e-mail look antiquated. Another option would be to provide a scalable API for interface designers and let those of us who choose to live online like we use Snitter or Twitterrific. (I promise that many of the 10% of Americans interested in web-enabled brain implants would prefer the oversized avatars and auditory notification of Snitter.)
In addition to a Facebook type friend feed, Yahoo! says that profile pages will proliferate. Click on anyone's name and you'll be able to see their profile page, populated with the information they chose to expose to you. I believe it will be populated automatically by RSS and it will contain a shocking amount of personal/demographic information exposed not just to the world but to Yahoo! as well. Yahoo! already knows, all you have to do is offer to show people the faces of those who are looking at their profile page; scores of people will gladly expose their own face, demographic info and browser history in order to participate. That's why MyBlogLog was acquired.
Who was closest to making RSS mass market before Facebook? MyYahoo. What's far, far bigger than RSS though? Email.
Attention in Email: The Holy Grail
The social network of the future will be populated by the RSS feeds of the activities of your friends and your friends will be determined by email. The big players won't put a major push into building a new social network. "It is much easier to extend an existing habit than to create a brand," are the words Google's Joe Krause used to explain this in Hensall's article.
Your email account isn't valuable because it's got the email adresses of other people who could be solicited commercially - it's valuable because it articulates who in the world is able to command your attention. It contains analyzable, direct communication between you and the people most important to you.
Garlinghouse says that in the future email and IM will be prioritized depending on the importance to you of the people who send it to you. We're not talking about the number of times people email you - we're talking about the percentage of times you open those emails, the keywords used in them relative to your personal/work profile, there are metrics so crazy we can hardly imagine that are available for determining the importance of people in your life. In your email. Facebook's people-search uses some similar math already.
The Future is Fascinating
All of this is magic. Pick your metaphor, is it a nerve center, is it wizardry or is it a dystopian Minority Report-like future? Recognizing that all gestures we make online carry data with them, that data can move fluidly and that there's a deep pool of richness lying just below the surface of our existing behavior - that's exciting stuff. Bring it on Yahoo! and Google!