•New service displays email as a "stream" like Facebook
•Allows instant searching through emails as you type
•Shows attachments like photos as a slide show
•Lets you manage multiple accounts under one log-in
Email has "stagnated" and three Australians who quit Google say they have built a product that will change the way we interact with email and allow us to get through our bulging inboxes "20 per cent faster".
Cameron Adams, 32, and Dhanji Prasanna, 31, began work on Fluent full-time about six months ago, after becoming frustrated at Google's work culture and leaving the company about the middle of last year. The third co-founder, Jochen Bekmann, left Google to join them in November.
The trio quit Google after the company's Wave messaging product was axed, and their comments about being frustrated at Google (below) are similar to those made by Lars Rasmussen, another Australian member of the Wave team who left Google, joining Facebook.
Ironically, Fluent integrates only with the team's ex-employer's Gmail service to create an experience that shows users their email and its contents in a stream-like fashion similar to how one views a friend's posts on Facebook or Twitter. In the future it will also allow other email services such as Hotmail to be integrated.
We're trying to ... imagine the future of email," Adams said. "We think that email has sort of stagnated and got into these set patterns of people using it and it's not being pushed forward any more."
One thing Fluent aimed to change about email was presenting it in a stream that lets one action items as quickly as possible, Adams said.
"So rather than having to receive a message, look at the subject, click on it, read the conversation, and then decide what to do, we sort of present you with the information that you need to immediately action on it."
Other features of Fluent include letting users quickly browse attachments such as images in a slide show format, the ability to search for emails as one types - something Google's search engine pioneered with "Instant Search" but is not available in Gmail - and the ability to pinpoint emails one has sent to a specified email address on a timeline.
Another feature in Fluent, which Adams said most webmail clients were "pretty horrible" at dealing with, was its focus on letting users access multiple email accounts under one log-in.
"The market that we're going for initially is sort of independent professionals and small businesses that tend to have personal accounts [and] maybe several work accounts," Adams said. "It's quite important for them to be able to check their multiple accounts at the same time."
He claimed Fluent users would be able to get through their email "20 per cent faster" than they do now.
Co-founder Prasanna said one of the features that he worked on in Fluent that made it faster to browse an email inbox was search.
"What we're trying to do with search is really alter the dynamics of how you go through your email," Prasanna said.
One way of doing that was by implementing a feature he called "search as you type", which, as the name suggests, brings up search results in real time as you type in each character of a search query.
"It's really slick and fast," Prasanna said, adding that it was something that "no webmail client does right now".
"Not even Outlook or Thunderbird do a good job of this. It's really weak for them," he said.
The search functionality works by Fluent indexing all of one's emails when it first imports all of one's messages from Gmail. Once imported, all future emails are automatically indexed and synchronised with Gmail.
Another thing Fluent is "trying to pioneer" apart from really fast search, Prasanna said, was the idea of searching by time.
"If you look through a conversation with a specific person ... we show you a timeline of all your emails with that person on a scale. So [if] you know you got an email from Cameron like a month ago ... you click that [month] and it just shows you that month backwards."
Adams said that, from today, Fluent would let a limited number of users trial its product as beta users. He said the business plan was to offer the basic email experience - which might or might not be free - but also offer a premium version with features that went beyond standard email, such as offering document collaboration, file-sharing and integration with services such as Dropbox, Evernote and Google Docs.
A price for the premium features was yet to be worked out. "We still have to test the market on that one," Adams said.
Mobile versions of the app were also being worked on, which catered to the strengths of the iPad, iPhone and Android touch capabilities, Adams said.
"When you're on your mobile or you're on your iPad you're less in a replying mode and more in a consumption triage mode. So one thing we wanted to make Fluent do was make it sort of easy to organise your inbox.
"So with touch you can just swipe to the right to [mark an email] as a to do or archive by swiping it to the left. The idea is that if you're on your phone you can 'to do' a bunch of stuff or get a bunch of stuff out of your inbox when you're on the ferry to work ... and then once you land at work you can jump on to your desktop and get the same sort of experience but have a much easier typing experience for replying and doing more of the hard work."
Bart Jellema, founder of ZEROmail, a service similar to Fluent which focuses primarily on getting rid of emails in a user's inbox, said Fluent had "a very slick user interface" but questioned how it worked in reality.
"Having worked with email for a full year now, it's very messy. How do you work around all that? That's yet to be seen."
Jellema said Fluent made doing email "a little faster" but said he didn't "see any sort of new thinking" in the product from what he had seen the Fluent team do so far.
Why they left Google
Adams said he left Google towards the end of July last year because the design culture was "still maturing and finding its feet". He had been working for about three years on the Google Wave project, which was cancelled in August 2010, and said his experience as an employee of Google in Sydney made him feel like he "wasn't contributing much" to Google's products.
"They value engineers a lot more highly than designers and often you're just there to make things look pretty," he said, adding that designers like himself tended "to get slightly frustrated at Google".
"There's definitely some designers that make a good go of it but particular out in Sydney I think it's quite hard to have an effect. Sydney tends to sort of have a satellite office effect where you get smaller projects and there is less involvement in the whole life cycle of product development."
Prasanna had similar reasons for leaving. After Google Wave was cancelled he began work on building new features for Google+, the search giant's attempt at building a social network similar to Facebook, with Cameron.
"The problem was that every time we brought it to a particular stage and took it to [Google in Mountain View, California] they were not keen on launching it just yet. They said, 'Why don't you guys go back and change it a little bit and do this and do that.' So it became quite frustrating and ... being in a satellite office you're not plugged into the main project's arteries."
Adams said that what they were contributing to Google+ "was quite experimental" and was yet to be used. "It wasn't going to be a core feature of Google+. It was kind of more a forward-thinking thing [about] what the next stage of Google+ would be."
He added that being in Sydney meant it was "hard to stay in the minds of the people over in Mountain View".
"When we did our work we'd take it over to them and they'd be like 'Yeah that's cool but we can't do anything with it.'"
Adams said Fluent's other co-founder, Jochen Bekmann, had a "similar story" in working for Google.
Prasanna said that Bekmann first worked on a Google Maps project before it got cancelled. He then joined Wave before it was cancelled and then went back to work on Maps.
"He was doing that for a while and then Cameron and I approached him."
Ben Grubb -SMH.com.au