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The Ultimate “Save Your Job” eMail Feature, And Why It Took Microsoft So Long To Implement It

October 11, 2013

It’s 2:00am and I’m still at work. Why? Because the boss decided that I had to redo the management presentation that he already approved a week ago. But, then he had this epiphany and decided that we needed to completely change the focus. And you want to know the funny part? The new way is the way that I wanted to do it in the first place! He overruled me back at the start of the project and now he’s acting like the new design was his plan all along. And the sad part is this presentation is going to look awesome and he’s going to take 100% of the credit. How do I know this? Because he always takes all the credit.

You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna write him an email and explain my concerns with his management style. The fact that it will have a time stamp of 2:00am will let him know what a pain his flaky personality has been today. Wait. . .It’s two in the morning. I’m strung out on Diet Coke and M&M’s. I’ve been up for over 18 hours. Is this really the best time for me to be writing this email? . . .You bet it is!

You can imagine what that email looked like. It was brilliant. It was cutting. It was liberating to finally be telling him the truth about my feelings. As I finally got to sleep around 3:30am, it was the satisfaction of knowing that I was no longer being a wimp at work. In fact, this is something that Sherry might have done. You remember Sherry, she’s the one who had the screaming match with the VP over packaging decisions. That was quite the fight. Yeah, poor Sherry. She was gone by the end of the day.

Uh oh. . .

What do you do? Send a follow up, “I didn’t mean it, it was the Diet Coke talking” email? Pack your stuff? Call in sick?

When WordPerfect Office 2.0 shipped on August 8, 1988, it included a feature called Message Recall. (I talked about this yesterday in “I’m The Father Of Murphy Brown’s Baby.”) Message Recall was a very clever feature. It attempted to delete the original message in such a way that the recipient never knew it was there. The programmers actually thought through the process. if the message was opened it meant the recipient had already seen it, and it couldn’t be deleted. If you sent the message to multiple people and then deleted it, Office would delete it from anyone it could. And Office had one other truly innovative feature for 1988: Passive Status Tracking. In fact, even today most system don’t track status as well as WordPerfect Office was doing it 25 years ago.

Every message you sent was tracked for when it arrived, when it was opened, and when it was deleted. So, the old excuse of “Oh, I didn’t see your email” didn’t work. The sender could look and say, “It arrived at 1:30pm. You opened it at 1:35 and deleted it at 1:40.” Or worse, “You deleted it at 1:35 without ever opening it.”

In my above example, all I had to do was get back to my office before the boss got in. Not a problem since I was sleeping under my desk.

Microsoft Didn’t Do It. . .
In 1993 I went to work for Microsoft supporting Microsoft Mail. In 1996 Microsoft release Exchange 4.0. It was a huge improvement over MSMail 3.0. But, I was disappointed that they chose to not include Message Recall. I was writing courseware on Exchange for Microsoft Support at the time. One of the people on our team was Jenny. She has come to us from IBM where she was an expert on cc:Mail.

I can’t believe they didn’t include Message Recall.

Why would they?

It’s a great feature. It’s a “Save Your Job” feature.

Look Rodney, this is stupid. Think about it this way. When you email a letter and you go drop it into one of those blue Mailboxes, you can’t go back later and fish your message out. In this case we are treating it just like regular mail.

Don’t you see? That’s the point. We don’t have to treat it just like regular mail. It can be better!

But, there’s no way to guarantee it would be 100% successful. For example, even with Novell GroupWise if you send to someone outside your own company Message Recall fails, right?

Yeah, but something is better than nothing!

. . .And Then Did It Badly
It was a couple of versions before the developers finally got tired of being hounded about Message Recall. So, they teamed up with the Outlook development team to implement Message Recall. They turned it into the worst feature EVER. Their solution was that rather than delete automatically, they would send a second message to the original recipient. The second message would say, “Rodney would like to recall the message titled “You are an idiot.” Click here to delete the original message.


That’s the best they could do? So, I send a nasty email to my boss at 2:00am and the way to get it back is to send another message that draws his attention to the original message?

How Much Does An Email To 5,000 People Cost?
In addition to saving your job, the other great feature of Message Recall was when you accidentally sent an email to the wrong person, or the wrong distribution list, or maybe to the entire company. WordPerfect/Novell’s implementation allowed you to quickly pull back all those messages. Those messages are dangerous for two reasons. First, they waste people’s time.

You might think, what’s the big deal? It’s just one message. It takes 5 seconds to see it’s the wrong message and delete it. Imagine you are in a company with 5000 people. Each person takes 5 seconds to scan it and delete it. That’s 25,000 seconds. At 3600 seconds/hour, that’s nearly 7 hours. Your errant email just sucked one full day of productivity out of your company.

The second problem with those emails to everyone is that people feel the need to respond. You end up with people arguing over sending the email in the first place. So, with Office/GroupWise it was easy to pull the message back. If you really needed to know how many saw it, you had passive status tracking to let you know.

With Microsoft’s implementation, if you accidentally sent it to 5000 people you could recall it, but I wouldn’t advise it. Now, rather than 5000 errant messages, you have 10,000. You now have sucked two days out of the company. Better to just hide and hope not too many people noticed. Oh, and if you did decide to recall the message and you wanted status tracking? You would receive an email telling you if the recall was successful for each and every person you sent it too. That’s 5000 message in your mailbox in just a few minutes telling you YES or NO for each person.

Ironically, implementing the feature badly validated Microsoft Exchange developers original bias. “See?” they’d say. “We put it in and no one uses it!” We tried to explain that was because they did it badly.

They Finally Got It Right
Eventually, by Exchange 2000, they finally figured out the use case and created a silent recall. You still got a separate email for each person if you asked for status tracking, but at least you could keep from wasting the time of 5000 people.

Over the years, I’ve wondered, if I understood the value of the feature so well, why did it take the developers and Program Managers so long to figure it out? I think it’s the fact that we see what we want to see. Like my friend Jenny, the programmers were trying to make email more like regular mail. They weren’t able to visualize the ability of email to provide a better experience. It took them many years, but I’m just happy that eventually they caught the vision that us early adopters were preaching to them all those years.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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