updated 3/14/2011 2:10:34 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:34

In most cases, technology aims to simplify. But when it comes to text-based digital communications — e-mails, texts, chat messages, tweets and Facebook correspondence -- the technological mess only grows messier. Today, turning on one’s mobile device after leaving a movie theater could reveal an array of different text communications waiting across several different formats in several different places.

To untangle that mess, programmers have developed apps and interfaces specifically to merge a user’s various text correspondences into a single electronic reservoir, a kind of “universal inbox” that sends and receives text communications regardless of their origin. Google’s Gmail allows users to chat, send SMS texts, and make voice phone calls (with visual voice mail, another text function) from their inboxes, Facebook is currently testing its own e-mail service that layers an “” address on top of Facebook’s existing messaging and chat features, and mobile apps such as Samsung’s “Social Hub” collect users’ many social networking and messaging streams into one centralized place.

However, since people rely on those different definitions to inform them about the urgency or seriousness of a communication, human nature has proven a larger barrier to implementing the universal inbox than any technological challenge.

“When we’re getting information from 600 different places, is there a point at which it’s too much?” said Amy Bruckman, an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing. “That’s a reasonable question to ask. And then the question becomes: How can people manage that more effectively?"

Context matters

Each of the various methods of text communication came about in a different way, at a different time, and with different ends in mind. SMS, for instance, was designed to send short text messages over voice networks before Web-enabled smartphones turned many mobile devices into data streaming pocket computers. SMS' larger counterpart, the MMS, was developed to send larger multimedia messages via phone networks, but they were delivered by in a completely different way . Similarly, e-mail was devised to send longer text correspondence and file attachments across data networks, moving from computer to computer but not from phone to phone or between computers and phones.

There is really no technological barrier to the universal inbox, but it’s trivial to collect all of our communications in a single bin if we can’t make sense of it, Bruckman said. Our various text communications media are like different channels to which we prescribe different levels of importance. A universal inbox, Bruckman argues, strips users of the only means to gauge the relevance of a message without actually delving into the content.

“There’s nuance to communications mediums, and the way that people use these things expressively to communicate different meanings to different people in different areas of their lives has tremendous expressive power that people use to their benefit every day,” Bruckman told InnovationNewsDaily. “Smashing it all together is kind of a crude suggestion in a way.”

From many, one

Of course, should software or hardware find another way to provide context, users might embrace a universal inbox more readily.

“Every channel serves a purpose for that person at the time,” said David Daniels, CEO of e-mail marketing consultancy The Relevancy Group. “I define relevance as the intersection of content and context.”

Daniels doesn’t view the “universal inbox” as an impossible notion. The way he sees it, smartphones already provide a hardware solution to the problem, bringing disparate text media into a single place. But further merging them into the same inbox, regardless of source, platform or device, is something few people realize they can do — or even want to do at this point.

“You first have to have a well-established, unified need that stretches across society before you end up with a text-converged future that looks the same to most people,” said Stuart Lipoff, Chairman of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society Standards Committee. “People have such different needs that there doesn’t seem to be enough uniformity."

Lipoff touches on the heart of the problem: While it’s technologically very feasible to build a universal inbox, each user’s priorities, needs and definition of relevance is different. While he sees the universal inbox as a powerful idea, technology must first produce a means for average people to easily configure a set of complex filters to help them manage their digital lives, or -- and this is the holy grail -- create an inbox that can automatically configure itself around each user’s unique needs and preferences.

The smart inbox

In other words, the universal inbox needs better artificial intelligence-. The system must understand each user’s habits, what he or she considers relevant, and automatically organize messages the same intuitive way different channels already do.

That technology is coming. As Lipoff points out, some consumer electronics are already imbued with advanced artificial intelligence (AI) features, and some interfaces, such as Google’s Gmail, are rather adept at learning user behaviors and prioritizing incoming text communications. But AI that's capable of an effective universal inbox simply isn’t widely available.

However, the questions really isn’t “why don’t we have a universal inbox?” Rather, it’s “what would we do with all that information if we did?” Bruckman said.

A universal inbox that recognizes context could effectively manage it for users, but, as the AI computer system Watson showed, teaching machines to identify relevancy is a tough computer science problem. —And to really work, the universal inbox will need to go beyond just to sending and receiving information. It will need to become a digital extension of the user’s understanding of how and why they communicate.

“Could I imagine a really great AI?” Bruckman said. “Sure, and that would be wonderful. But it’s a hard computer science problem and I’m not expecting it to happen any moment now.”

© 2012 TechNewsDaily


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