I’m maybe one of the last people still in awe of email. It continually amazes me that I can type something, hit send, and my buddy across town or in Istanbul can read it within seconds. People who grew up with it- the oldest of whom are just a few years younger than me- might take it for granted, but it is still such a recent and seismic shift in human capabilities that it staggers the mind.
Of course, people have been saying for years that email is passe, and that the new generations don’t really use it. That’s probably true, as texting and IM have become not just ubiquitous, but useful as well. There are other ways email has become slightly obsolete- many companies use alternate systems like Google Drive and other productivity software, allowing them to work together from remote offices inside the same document in real time, which is astonishing and super useful. It cuts down on excess emails.
That excess of emails is probably the main reason why email is seen as outdated, and maybe more frustrating than useful. Managing a full inbox is incredibly stressful, and for the most part, email seems a vestigial organ on smartphones- it doesn’t work very well, and makes life more complicated. That might be changing, though, with the new Google Inbox and the announcement that Microsoft is releasing the venerable Office suite of apps free for mobile devices. Suddenly, your smartphone has become a lot smarter, and more useful.
Microsoft Office for Your Mobile Device
Microsoft introduced Office 1.0 in 1990, before the average Microsoft engineer working today was even born (sobering thought: that might actually be true). Although it only had Word, Excel, and a Powerpoint feature, it was still pretty revolutionary. Throughout the years, Microsoft kept adding and improving on its Office suite- with some setbacks and detractors, but always with an eye toward making a better and more useful product. Despite it being seen somewhat as the embarrassing older uncle, it is still used by over a billion people worldwide. It doesn’t get that big without being useful.
There is a big drawback, though- until this week, it wasn’t free and readily available to smartphone users whose operating systems were Android or iOS (Galaxy, iPhone, Motorola users, among others). If you wanted to use Office, you had to subscribe, which in the age of a million apps for everything, seemed unreasonable.
Microsoft doesn’t want to lose their market share, and they recognize how the world of work is changing. People aren’t tethered to their cubicles; as much work is done outside the office as inside. If you want compatibility, you need consistency throughout devices, or else it becomes messy and confusing. I have a Galaxy S4, and I use Google, so it all works out for me. But if my work used Office, I’d either have to subscribe or keep going back and forth.
Microsoft doesn’t want that, so they are rolling out free applications for Word, Excel and others for the Android tablets, as well as iPhone and iPads. This will make work a lot easier for people and make their smartphones and other mobile devices even more useful. What it doesn’t fix, though, is the problem with email.
Solving Email: A Mobile Solution
The other big tech news of last week was that Google announced a new Inbox app for your mobile device. It also works for home computers, but as we said, so much of work is done on smartphones and tablets. And so much of the email interface on mobile devices was frustrating- slow, hard to open, and difficult to manage or to move around in a useful and intuitive way.
These problems are reflected in every email experience. What the Google Inbox attempts to do is to make the process smoother. Suppose you are out and about and you get an email from your “Recipe of the Day” subscription. You think that lobsters stuffed with tacos is an excellent idea for dinner tonight, but you’re at a meeting. Do you mark the email as unread and have it clog up your inbox and bother you the rest of the day? Do you move it to a folder where you’ll forget about it?
With the new app, you won’t have to make that choice. As Katherine Boehret reported in Recode, the app combines a snooze mode with geolocation. You can hide the email until you get home, then it will ding up again, and you remember to get cooking. This is of course just one example, but it shows an attempt to make email work with your life, especially the life we spend on our mobile devices, rather than against it.
Work is rarely ideal, and no matter how good the apps are, it will never be fully fun. That’s not the point though. The point is to reduce stress, and with the largest tech companies recognizing how much of our time is spent on our smartphones, and redesigning the work experience to integrate with that, the amount of time spent outside of work can start going back up again.
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