Not the last email client

This past New Year season was special in many regards. Yet, one thing in particular stood out: a number of new email clients entered the scene and a number of older ones changed dresses to keep up with the play.

In these recent times we've got (in order of appearance):

In the nearest future we expect to get at least new Spark for Mac.

For a crowded and low-margin market like email clients and email services market that's a lot. The increased interest to sending and receiving emails with taste can be attributed to now officially documented death of Mailbox, to reignited conversations around privacy of communication, and partially to decay of current market leaders. Developers could not miss the chance to fill the void of email innovation. But as this wave of enthusiasm washes out will there be anything interesting after that? Have we seen the last major email client?

I argue not. Email is based on a protocols created more than 30 years ago. It became so universal and ubiquitous that there will always be something that could be done better for some of the various emailing use cases. And developers will always try to fill those bubbles of void that regularly appear in different places of the email universe.

Every platform has to have an email client. Each vendor provides one as a part of platform's standard offering. The standard email client has to be capable, but it can not be remarkable, it can not alienate users. It has to serve diverse audience of platform users. By the virtue of this fact developers of platform apps can not take bold moves in user experience design. And they have little incentive for providing beyond-standard functionality. Standard email clients are usually the best in integration with their mother platform. Yet they leave enough of features to be desired and let other apps try to address them.

After all these years we use email as a communication vehicle in every possible way. We talk to one another (although admittedly more rarely via email these days). We get notifications from services. We share files. We receive information in newsletters. We use email as a common denominator of electronic communication, when other channels can fail. This naturally creates the world, where someone who never received a newsletter cannot appreciate Spark's ability to add link to Instapaper or Pocket in one click, or someone who is used to quickly sorting through his inbox with gestures in Mailbox is not a big fan of GMail app. Different email apps excel in different areas and have their own fandom.

There is another outcome from the email being with us for such a long time. Developers tried almost every way to squeeze every last penny off the market. Sparrow was the first to show that an email app alone cannot sustain its own development and support. Mailbox has shown that subsidizing mail app development with other sources of revenue does not always work. Email apps market has scale – [almost] everybody needs a way to send and receive emails – but has to bring money from elsewhere to be sustainable. Many have tried and many will try to solve this conundrum to give us the last email client we will ever need.

Figuring out business model for an email app is important. Email apps are complex. Even bare minimum of features requires a lot of things: support for GMail, implementation of IMAP, some sort of contacts management, decent performance for dealing with our multi-gigabyte mailboxes, and more. All this makes developing new world's best email app a costly endeavor with uncertain financial outcomes. And, as if that was not enough, we have to take into account that most modern email clients can not function without a backend of their own. If app manages to get to any meaningful scale, operational costs of keeping the lights on for the app will be really high.

All that said, developers are creative people. Some of them are risky and brave. And although we are now in a period of relative calm in email client news, I believe we have not seen the last greatest email client to rule them all.