By September 20, 2011

Shortmail reinvents email and then breaks it

`Shortmail-1 Many of us have a love hate relationship with email but like it or loathe it email is still ubiquitous. One company trying to make email a little less painful is Shortmail.

Shortmail is a web service whose aim is to simplify email. Not only do they restrict messages to only 500 characters but they don’t allow attachments or any kind of folder or label management. On the face of it that all sounds great. As they say: "Just communication – with any email user, anywhere. All emails are limited to 500 characters. Messages are always short and to the point."

Great, I’m in. And then I used it. The reality of Shortmail is somewhat less interesting. If someone sends you an email longer than 500 characters it gets put into a Quarantine area which I didn’t even know existed. The sender gets sent email saying their message was too long which they don’t understand as there is an expectation with email which Shortmail breaks. It all gets very messy very quickly and I found myself managing my emails even more than before.

Read on for more.

The problem with Shortmail is not their desire to improve messaging and communication but to use an existing protocol to do it. Taking it’s lead from the speed and brevity of Twitter’s 140 character limit, Shortmail wants to simplify email by limiting messages to 500 characters. That sounds great in theory. There’s a problem however. Twitter owns its platform and can enforce any restrictions they like. 140 characters. That’s it. Some like this, some don’t but the upshot is – it works, it’s consistent. Messages are always 140 characters or less. Shortmail however doesn’t own it’s own platform. It uses the universal email standards of POP3, IMAP and SMTP. The problem with trying to put limitations (however laudable) on a federated, internet standard is that it can’t be enforced outside Shortmail and it is simply a desire not a requirement. Messages between Shortmail users are great. The user experience is consistent and all is well. Should you communicate with someone outside then it all breaks down.

`Shortmail 2

Unless it is literally used by everyone then it can’t work properly and provide a consistent user experience. The 500 character limit which is it’s strength and USP is also its weakness. Twitter works because you have no choice. Shortmail may well fail because you do have a choice and this choice breaks the user experience.

On the plus side the UI is great. It’s simple, clean and does away with pretty much everything except the message in hand. But until everyone uses Shortmail, approach with caution.

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