Mozilla Raindrop: The unified intelligent inbox?

3. November 2009 – 12:27 by Bengt Feil

raindrop-logo-listingEmail has developed into a hub for all online communication and is not able to handle this task natively. Raindrop tries to tackle this problem and alongside has some potential implications for eParticipation.

The internet has developed into the most lively communication tool available to us today. But this sentence is not really true: There is no such thing as “the internet” (except on a protocol level). There are many different platforms and tools for communication which work together more or less well. Actually they often times do not work together at all. Right now users have to accept that they cannot send a message from Facebook to our Linked-In or Twitter contacts. So how do all of these services and tools tackle this problem right now? They send out email every time something happens and expect the user to then visit the site to interact with the event (e.g. answer the message, comment a photo). This leads to enormous amounts of messages pilling up in everyone’s inbox (so called bacn messages: not really spam but not exactly useful either) and makes it hard to quickly cope with them as they are not really email but just a notification that something happened on another site.

The team at Mozilla tries to tackle this problem with their Raindrop project. The general idea is that the email inbox should be smart about which messages are the most important ones and display them prominently. Furthermore users should be able to directly interact with messages and engage in conversations wherever the might happen. The video below describes the effort very clearly:

Raindrop UX Design and Demo from Mozilla Messaging on Vimeo.

Even though this project is in a very early stage (Version 0.1 is available as source code) it has one really important advantage over other attempts to improve online messaging: There is no new protocol handling the messaging. Raindrop just uses email. This means that users and providers do not have to change their messaging architectures. Raindrop is just a different interface to the stream of messages. This is a very important distinction to Googles Wave effort which introduces a new protocol. Therefore Raindrop does not have to “win” the messaging battle. It can happily live alongside other email clients and interfaces. Wave however needs to be dominant to succeed. Theoretically speaking: Email already has a lot of network value while the Wave protocol will need time to build it.

Raindrop is a web app (like Gmail etc.) and is of course completely open source like the other Mozilla projects. It is build in Python and offers an API which allows developers to build extensions to improve the functionality. An example for an extension would be: You get a direct message in Twitter. Twitter sends out an email notification to you and it is displayed in Raindrop. The extension could allow you to directly answer this message in line. The extension would take your message and hand it over to Twitter to send it to the addressed person. The technical architecture of Raindrop and extensions are discussed in the video below (warning: rather geeky but very interesting):

Raindrop Software Components from Mozilla Messaging on Vimeo.

For those active in eParticipation such a development can be very positive if the use of email is evolved:

  1. Notifying users about events in an ongoing eParticipation process can be much more effective as they could be reached through any contact information they have given (Email, Twitter, Facebook etc.) and the message will be displayed in an appropriate form in their unified inbox.
    Condition: Notifications need to get more personal. Bulk messages are ineffective and annoying to users already and Raindrop will make sure these annoying messages will get even less effective.
  2. The barrier to interaction is lowered as users can interact directly with notifications they have received and are not forced to always visit the eParticipation platform.
    Condition: Raindrop needs to be able to understand messages from an eParticipation platform to allow instant interaction. Therefore there might be the need to build an extension to help it do so. Building an extension to Raindrop makes sense as it only has to be built once – There is no need to repeat the process for each social network and each platform as Raindrop already is the aggregator.

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