The Root of the Problem: Asana Boldly Aims to Kill Email

By Sarah Lacy , written on June 27, 2012

From The News Desk

Back in 2008 when Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein left Facebook, I heard that it was to build a replacement to email. At the time that seemed outrageous, as email was so rooted in what we do every day. Was it really broken enough for people to try something new?

Oh, what a difference four years makes. There's a general consensus in tech circles now that email just has to go.

Is it that we talk about how much we hate email more now? (Because we talk about it a lot. Or is it that all of our mailboxes have become equally untenable over those years, as social media and social commerce has only further clogged what are increasingly antiquated pipes? When I have to enter my email address anywhere now, I wince and think of those signs throughout San Francisco bathrooms that remind how old the pipes are and to use paper products sparingly. I feel like one more sign-up might break the system.

The first iteration of Asana had more to do with collaboration around tasks. It may have indirectly pulled stuff out of your email box, like all of these collaboration/social enterprise plays do, but it wasn't explicitly an email replacement.

Lo and behold, that was just step one. As my Facebook friends told me back then, Rosenstein and Moskovitz were always planning to take out email, and that starts today. It'll start to be rolled out to users today, and will be available for all of them next week. For free. The product is called InBox -- no coy name here. It's fucking on, email!

And while bold, it makes sense. There is no way to solve how people work without taking it on. "It's become a counter-productivity tool," Rosenstein says. "It's hard to blame it. Email was just meant as an upgrade of the post office. We're using it for a complex action for which it just wasn't intended."

Given I've already declared that I want to move off Yammer post-Microsoft sale, I was doubly excited to see what was up these guys' sleeves. I got a demo yesterday, and its certainly interesting. There's a central feed that shows you what's new or flagged. The old stuff is by default gone.

Conversations are still organized around tasks, and people can essentially subscribe to those conversations. For instance, if I wanted to know everything about how our LA event is shaping up, I'd subscribe to those conversations. If I felt Oni had it under control, I could unsubscribe and save the clutter. This bi-directional control seems like it could be a game changer in practice. Think of how many times you think, "WHY AM I STILL ON THIS THREAD?" but feel like telling people to take you off of it would be too rude.

And you can pull in people who aren't on Asa-- they just get the messages via their old antiquated email systems.

It's a break from systems like Yammer where you follow people. And that's surprising coming from the co-founder of Facebook. Asana's founders continue to believe that dumping a Facebook or Twitter system into the enterprise is absurd. "Social business is an oxymoron," Rosenstein says. "In your personal life what you want is a system to help you track relationships with people. At work, it's less interesting to follow people. You want a work, task graph that tracks all the units of work, what has been done and what still needs to be done. You want to track all the piles around those work items. That's what's central the story -- the items of work, not the people."

Or put more simply by Moskovitz, "If we felt that a Facebook for enterprise was what businesses needed, we would have built that."

The coolest thing is that when you click on what used to be an email, the panel on the left gives you the entire context of that task -- not just an unwieldy thread. That's similar to what Hamish said he'd like in an email system, in terms of the "bio boxes" and relevant context.

Rosenstein says they've been using it internally and 90 percent of his email is now through the system. I'm doubtful it would work that well for me....yet. Frankly, so were they. The bulk of my email is from people whom I have a one-time communication with, not people I'm collaborating with on an ongoing basis. As Rosenstein put it, I really have more of a ticketing system going on in email than a collaboration system. They're not attacking that part of email yet, but they plan to.

I'm going to try it out, regardless, as I now have two things I want to replace that I live in all day long: Yammer and email. (And I worry both might be wishful thinking.) But if Asana can do a good job of pulling all my team-related emails out of the rusty pipes, that would be progress. The same way Facebook and Twitter pulled a lot of photosharing and event planning emails out of my inbox. I have a feeling this is one of those things like TiVo or a keyboard-less phone that you just have to live with for a few weeks before you can say how great (or overrated) it is.

I'll report back if Asana becomes that Holy communication Grail.

(For more on Asana, watch our full PandoMonthly interview with Moskovitz. In this wide-ranging interview just before Facebook went public, he also talks about co-founding and leaving Facebook, and a goal even more ambitious than replacing email -- Moskovitz intends to use his billions to help end hunger in his lifetime.)