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Sep 21, 2021

Email: The Future of Messaging

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

4 min read


Last year, a team of ex-Firebasers and I started Shortwave, a stealth startup we're unveiling today. With Shortwave, we're placing all of our chips on one big bet: email will dominate the future of messaging.

We believe that email, despite all of its flaws, will eventually win as the way we communicate online, displacing iMessage, WhatsApp, Slack, WeChat, and every other messaging app in your pocket today.

At this point, you may be thinking "Email?! Isn't that the past?", and you wouldn't be alone. The email ecosystem has stagnated as the world changed around it. Email inboxes are overwhelmed with a volume of automated messages they were never designed to handle. Email clients — hamstrung by decades-old protocols and UI concepts — have failed to take advantage of mobile. Meanwhile, messaging apps have raced ahead with real-time updates, native support for groups, easy sharing of photos and videos, end-to-end encryption, and more.

However, email still has two key advantages that outweigh all of its flaws:

  1. It's universal — With nearly 4 billion users, email is the most ubiquitous messaging technology and the most reliable way to communicate with just about anyone.
  2. It's open and decentralized — Developers can build interoperable services without asking anyone for permission. This allows users to choose from a wide variety of clients and hosting providers, as well as a flourishing ecosystem of tools built on top of the protocol (for sending newsletters, wedding invitations, invoices, and more). Most importantly, if you're unhappy with your provider, you can switch to another one or even run your own servers.

Messaging apps, on the other hand, are closed services that don't interoperate. You can't send messages between Slack and Teams or from WhatsApp to iMessage, so you end up juggling a dozen apps to stay connected. These apps are controlled by a select few companies that mandate the use of their own clients, force all network traffic through their servers, and restrict what services can be built on top of them. These centralized services also create a single point of failure and control, making them unreliable platforms for free expression when it matters most. If you're unhappy with your experience, too bad.

The future of online communications cannot be trusted to a centralized service. It must be built on a foundational technology that is:

  • Universal — I should be able to talk to anyone in the world from a single app.
  • Open & decentralized — I should be able to develop and run my own clients, servers, and services.
  • Intelligent — I should never miss an important message, no matter how many messages I receive in a day.
  • Flexible & expressive — I should be able to communicate the way I want, whether that means writing a long memo or sending a quick emoji reaction to a friend's video.
  • Private & secure — I should feel confident sending even my most sensitive information.

The right choice isn't to invent a new protocol. The right choice is to build on email — a technology that is already universal, open, decentralized, and battle-tested for over 40 years.

While email today does not yet satisfy all of our requirements, recent advancements in machine learning, encryption, and decentralized governance have made some of email's most challenging problems far more tractable. People and businesses are also reconsidering social conventions around email and messaging due to the shift to remote work, making this an ideal time for a new approach. With the right investments in modern clients, new servers, upgraded protocols, and thoughtful design, it's now possible to build a user experience that lives up to email's potential.

Upgrading email will be a difficult, multi-year journey, but we have the right team, resources, and determination to play the long game. Our first product is a brand new inbox experience for your existing Gmail account. It is still being tested privately, but we are providing early access to a select set of individuals and companies. If you would like to try it out, sign up here. If our mission excites you and you want to help build the next wave of communication, we're looking for great people to join us, so please get in touch.

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