Future of Web Apps: replying to mum's e-mails

Future of Web Apps attendees witnessed a live brainstorming session ... about e-mail.

Digg's founder and chief architect Kevin Rose wants people, and his mother in particular, to know that he's not a jerk. He's simply too busy to answer his e-mail on a timely basis.

He is, in fact, so concerned that his e-mail response habits will ruin his reputation that he would like to create an application to address this problem.

This all came up at the Future of Web Apps conference in Miami, where on Friday he and a group of other young Web 2.0 entrepreneurs participated in a panel titled "Launch a Web app in 40 minutes."

That title was misleading. No Web application was launched. In fact, not a single line of code was written.

But the session, whose panelists included Pownce's Leah Culver, WordPress' Matt Mullenweg, Twitter's Blaine Cook and Scrapblog's Carlos Garcia, gave attendees a good snapshot of the erratic and uncertain process that precedes the launch of a potentially popular or useless Web application.

Rose's idea, one of several proposed by the panelists, was ultimately chosen by the audience -- through their applause -- as the one the group should try to develop. What ensued was a sometimes funny, sometimes testy and often confusing brainstorming session.

Panelists discussed and argued about, among other things, how this application should work, what features it should have, how it should be called, how it would generate revenue and how its home page should look.

Egos were clearly bruised and patience ran low. But Rose's original vague idea -- a service that would automatically reply to his e-mail senders with statistics on how many unread messages he has and give them an estimate for when he might reply -- quickly took a more defined shape.

One of the ideas tossed around was that the application could be tied in with the person's calendar, giving it an idea of why e-mail could be piling up. Also proposed was that, via various activity-tracking and ranking methods, the application could assign senders different levels of importance, and generate different replies accordingly. In addition, it was suggested that the application could alert the user by phone if a time-sensitive message arrives.

Attendees also learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes it's not necessary to go through the trouble of building a Web application to deal with a nagging issue. "Just set an auto-reply that says 'I'm not a jerk'," Culver quipped to Rose. Problem solved.

Conference chairman Tantek Celik, a computer scientist well-known for his previous roles as chief technologist at Technorati and co-founder of the Microformats.org community, on stage after the panel, gave the whole discussion its coup de grace with a devastating, but ultimately right-on-target, observation. He pointed out how ironic it was to be discussing an application about -- of all things -- e-mail technology at a conference devoted to the future of software.

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