Wed 30 Jul
People who know a lot more about the future than me tend to predict that someday soon that we’ll use software through voice command or even through dimensional gesturing in the style of “Minority Report.” Maybe that will happen and maybe it won’t. But my favorite alternative — or rather supplement — to the windows, mouse and pointer paradigm of controlling software is here today and it’s underrated: messaging. SMS on my phone, for sure, but definitely email.
Like most people, I’m sure, I spend the majority of my day in front of my email program. So when I can do something outside of the natural capable boundaries of email using that same, highly familiar interface, it feels like a real win.
This is why I like TripIt so much, the travel planning Web application that really jolted me in that uncommon, “Eureka!” fashion that really good software tends to do. Basically, TripIt accepts the fact that most trips are planned using a variety of tools — Google Maps, rental car sites, Travelocity, etc. Rather than trying to usurp or intermediate those tools, the site tries to tap into their power, most notably by using email as a conduit. It counts on the fact that when you book a hotel or car, the vendors are providing you with the information you really need in the form of emailed confirmations of your bookings, and why not make the most of that?
So to start using TripIt, all you really need to know — seriously, this is it — is their email address: email@example.com. Using your own mail software — the system you already know and use constantly — just forward the email confirmations from those services to that address, and the TripIt application parses the information for you and sets up an itinerary. You can even forward emails without having an account in place or without ever having visited the site before; TripIt will simply set up an itinerary in a temporary account and invite you, via a reply email, to register and activate it.
Earlier this year, I traveled to California and used TripIt for the first time (on the recommendation of my friend Nate). I sent my confirmation emails from the airline, hotel and rental car company to TripIt, and it set up an itinerary for my trip within moments, collating the various kinds of check-in and -out dates into an easily understandable and coherent schedule. What’s more, along with my dates for pick-up and check-in, it also provided Google-powered maps and directions, and a weather forecast. It was the most organized trip I’d ever taken.
You can think of this use of email as a kind of bridge between a remote application and your desktop. It’s arguably primitive, but its power shouldn’t be underestimated, mostly because its learning curve is virtually zero. If there’s one skill we can count on in this medium where we can count on virtually nothing, it’s that people know how to send an email.
Contrast that bridge building with the approach that many social networks take, in which email is co-opted, rather than extended. Send a message on Facebook and your entire conversation takes place within its limits. That’s all well and good, but unless you spend enormous amounts of time within its confines (I prefer not to), it’s a real hindrance. Flickr’s messaging system works the same way, and I recently discovered messages sent to me from other Flickr users that had gone unanswered for months. In effect, these email features have been walled off, and any messaging benefit they provide, for me anyway, is dramatically less useful to me than they’d be if I could just use my own email program.
I accept that social networks tend towards walled gardens, and in part that’s why they’re often not my cup of tea. But I think even in that respect, application designers of all sorts would do well to recognize the underrated power of email as an interface. Flickr, Facebook and others can certainly justify keeping their poking, favoriting, commenting and other activities closely held. But please, just let me email the way I like to email.