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Ping for iPhone: does merging email and instant messaging make sense?

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You've got mail, instantly

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ping 3

The battle for email is very clearly in full swing. Apps and services seem to debut every day that destroy email, or subvert it, or merely help you rearrange it. Gmail introduced tabs to help weed out newsletters, Boomerang invented a feature to help put off emails until the right time, and Hum hopes to modernize your work-related communications. These apps rethink email, but often only by replacing it with something else.

You might mistake Ping for an instant messaging app, and that's by design

Ping, an iPhone app launching on September 18th, tries to make email itself more useful — within the bounds of an inbox you already understand. Ping packs in the variety of features you'd expect from an email app made in 2013, like snoozes (a la Mailbox), push notifications, search, a separate place for newsletters (like in Gmail), a wait list, and chat bubbles instead of traditional email messages. The app is designed around conversations, which means your inbox is simply a list of names, subject lines excluded. You might mistake Ping for an instant messaging app, and that's by design. Ping fuses email and IM in a fascinating and useful new way.

If you're emailing with a non-Ping user, the app is essentially an email client. If you're both on Ping, though, that's when things get interesting: the app automatically switches you into instant messaging mode. There are read receipts, typing indicators, and a variety of attachments you can send (like doodles). Messages are sent instantly, whereas with email, you generally have to wait a few minutes while corresponding with a friend or colleague. When you check your email later, Ping has turned your IMs into emails as if you had been emailing the whole time. The IM-to-email functionality isn't always reliable, but it feels like as much of a revelation as iMessage upon first trying it. You don't have to worry about switching from SMS to iMessage when texting a friend — texting is just faster when you both have iPhones.

Aside from its IM-inspired design elements and functionality, Ping also includes video and voice chatting similar to Viber or Skype. Bundling voice and video with texting is something Google also did with its latest iteration of Hangouts. If Google were smart, it would find an elegant way to combine Hangouts, Gmail, and Google Voice, but we're not quite there yet. The groundwork is laid, however — a quick search in Gmail yields both emails and Hangouts conversations. The line between them is increasingly blurred, just as it is with Ping, and no effort is required on the user's part to make that transition.

Ping as a concept makes even more sense once you consider what email has become

Ping as a concept makes even more sense once you consider what email has become. In many cases, email has devolved into short person-to-person or group messages — the only advantage being that you can access these messages from anywhere, and you can reach anyone (since everyone has an email address). Ping works with email, but also with another sub-network it has created of Ping users. This network is insular, but it provides a very concrete benefit to anyone inside of it.

Ping is a bit rough around the edges, doesn't always sync reliably, and isn't as fast as Mailbox. But by deconstructing the notion of what email fundamentally means, it heralds an age where getting in touch with friends and colleagues matters more than how you get in touch with them. IMAP, the standard on which most email synchronization is built, is aging more rapidly than ever. Email may never die, but with Ping, which lets you seamlessly IM inside of an email thread, it doesn't have to.