Feature plateaus

Are there natural resting places for features and products?

October 2, 2014
Jonathan Libov

People commonly decry that “email is broken”. Paul Graham called out for someone to fix it:

"Email was not designed to be used the way we use it now. Email is not a messaging protocol. It's a todo list. Or rather, my inbox is a todo list, and email is the way things get onto it. But it is a disastrously bad todo list.”

Is email actually broken? In other words, is it a problem that needs to be solved? To answer that question you might look at all the ways people have tried to fix email — from constraining the length to 350 characters to “visual inboxes” to a “reimagination” of the basic inbox experience, all promising to be the future of email — and wonder why we’re we all still using standard IMAP clients and Gmail.

I think it’s because in consumer-facing technology, things tend to roll downhill to some plateau, and in the case of email that’s blobs of rich text and images bounded in table cells that are not instantaneous like chat (the lack of instantaneousness is a feature). All the startups and new products promising to revolutionize email seem not to achieve that just because people's habits and needs are so diverse (even within organizations) that everything rolls back down to the common denominator: blobs of rich text and images.

You see this pattern all over the place. Apple introduced what appeared to be a more efficient to access files in the cloud — instead of saving the file in a folder, the application just somehow saves it for you — and now with iCloud Drive they've let the ball roll back downhill toward good ol’ Dropbox-style files and folders.

Twitter feels less and less natural every time they move further and further away from being a timeline of 140-character blob text and links. Now we have embedded images, cards, popular tweets from people you don’t follow, Buy buttons and more. That’s probably good for Twitter as a business, but my hunch is that your average Twitter user would be happier on the chronological blob of text plateau.

Lots of companies are introducing all kinds of functions on top of messaging, and the onus is on them to roll the ball uphill so that people don’t revert to good ol’ SMS, Messages, and Facebook Messenger. This is part of what made WhatsApp such a brilliant play — rather than building on top of the standard messaging paradigm they just wrapped all the familiar functions (text and images) inside a free network. That is, they kept things at the standard messaging plateau but made it free.

You could even argue that Snapchat’s brilliance is deliberately letting things roll further downhill. Digital photos pushed photography uphill by making photos easily shareable; Snapchat let photography roll back downhill toward a place where the permanence of digital photography was taken away (which is different than saying that ephemerality was added). Ephemerality is, in some sense, a very natural plateau for media because it mimics the way a song or any interesting moment vanishes once it’s over.

Of course, sometimes someone is able to push the ball from one plateau up to the next. Gmail truly pushed email forward with threading, which may or may not have been made digestible because it was also bundled with great search. I wish I could explain how what Gmail did fit some sort of pattern that could predict when the ball would be rolled up the hill, but I can’t. If I could I’d probably be building something right now.

The downhill metaphor, however, has been working well for me when I try to think about in this era of “Everybody has X now so we’re gong to build Y on top of that” or “Everybody is familiar with X and we’re adding Y.” The challenge for those companies is in figuring out how their users aren’t going to roll back downhill to the plateau where people have already set up camp.