Once upon a time, back in the era of AOL's cheery "You've got mail!" alert, receiving e-mail was a pleasant, even welcome experience. That was then. Now our inboxes buckle under the weight of an ever expanding morass of messages--many of which are ads and notifications sent by relentless machines rather than fellow human beings. Last year the average business user dealt with 110 messages a day, according to the Radicati Group research firm. These days, the best thing about e-mail isn't getting it. It's getting rid of it.
For years, e-mail software didn't change much to reflect that ugly reality. But now start-ups and established players alike are devising innovative tools for taming chaotic inboxes. These new-wave e-mail managers help you find vital messages and avoid spammy, irrelevant ones. They're free and work with your existing e-mail account--especially if it's Gmail, the most widely supported provider.
Demand is high. When the Silicon Valley company Orchestra released its Mailbox app for Gmail in February, more than 900,000 iPhone users signed up. (The company is letting them in a few at a time to ensure reliable service.) Here's a look at some of the most promising new tools.
FIVE ROUTES TO AN ORDERLY INBOX
When you don't have time to deal with a message at this very moment, this uncommonly elegant Gmail app for the iPhone lets you banish it from your inbox--and then bring it back to the top at a time of your choice, in a few hours, days or weeks. The superefficient interface allows you to blast through typical e-mail tasks with a few swipes or taps of your thumb.
This service doesn't replace the app you currently use for e-mail. It doesn't even let you send messages. Instead, it's a specialized tool best used for deleting e-mail as swiftly as possible. In fact, you can use it to eradicate mail from your inbox in bulk--for instance, by deleting all the messages from a particular person--whether or not you've actually read them.
Like boot camp for people who are serious about whipping their e-mail habits into shape, tenXer analyzes how long it takes you to respond to messages in Gmail. Then the service goads you into timelier communications through a bevy of stats and charts that track your progress toward faster responses.
AOL's ad-free service sucks e-mail from Gmail, Yahoo, AOL and other providers into one unified inbox. It automatically diverts not-so-vital missives such as ads and social-network notifications into stacks that you can peruse at your leisure or ignore altogether.
Released in late February, this ambitious iPhone and iPad app melds mail, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. You can check out, in one place, all the conversations you've had in any medium with a particular person--and they all get a Cloze score based on factors like the freshness and frequency of your interactions with them.