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WeMail adds voice messages to email

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Talking instead of typing is this email app’s big trick

Do we really need another email client for phones? The answer seems to keep being yes. Almost everywhere you look, startups and big companies alike are trying to turn the daily chore of churning through email into something simpler, smarter, and perhaps even more fun. Joining those ranks today is a new one called WeMail, which unlike the name suggests, does not involve opening up your inbox to strangers. Instead, it's about approaching emails a bit more like texts, and letting you respond to others with instant messages and even short voice memos.

WeMail is the creation of brothers Phil and Gerald Yuen, who sold their two previous companies to Amazon and Zynga. After leaving the social game-maker two years ago, the pair decided to take a crack at email, finding frustrations with the mail apps that came preinstalled on phones. "Up until today, I would argue that email on your mobile device is whatever was on your mobile browser and stuffed into your mobile phone," Phil Yuen says. "That's the furthest innovation on the mobile phone. We're unhappy with that."

Emails become IM conversations, or voicemails almost

Their answer is an email app for Android, and soon iOS, that groups conversations by contact. It links up with existing accounts from Google, Outlook, Yahoo, and AOL and has been designed for quick, chat-like responses. That's not a new thing in the world of email clients (see Sparrow, and now Google Inbox), but the Yuens have done something a little different. If two WeMail users are both using the client to send emails to one another, the app will just turn into a chat service, sending the messages like IMs, complete with a little icon to let you know that the other person is typing. These messages show up in your regular email, just like normal messages, too. Yuen says the idea is to let you just hop into a conversation right away without making it feel like a disjointed experience.

WeMail Jlo

WeMail also dabbles in voice messages, which you can record and send from the app instead of text emails, at up to 20 seconds each. These pop up with a little player in the client and can be played inline with services like Apple's Mail software, though if you're using something like Gmail, you need to download the attachment first. These aren't meant to replace normal written emails, Yuen says, so much as serve as an alternative for people who want to fire off something quickly without typing. That's as opposed to making senders dictate it on their own, which Android and iOS can do already through the keyboard. Yuen says the company tried something like that in an earlier version of the app and found it to be too clunky.

"We toyed around with speech to text, but when we tried voice transcription it took more time," he says. "I would actually have to go through and read through word by word to make sure something funny didn't go out." At that point, he said, you're often just better off writing an email.

The plan is to eventually turn these voice messages into text

When I ask how the voice feature might work for people who like to check their emails in meetings or other places where they need to be quiet, Yuen says that the plan is to eventually transcribe these, just like how Google Voice handles voicemails.

Besides the voice notes, Yuen says the biggest change people will notice is how the app organizes their email. New things still appear at the top, but conversations are threaded by contact, something he says cut the volume of messages in people's inboxes by more than half among the 1,000-or-so private beta testers who have been using it ahead of release. This has been done in a way that doesn't glom everything together, and Yuen hopes that will be familiar to people who are used to carrying on conversations in their favorite texting app.

WeMail inbox

That brings up the question of where this fits in with other services people are already using. Yuen says he's not building a desktop version of the software, and he still expects people to go to their email service of choice while using a computer. Nor is he trying to replace existing chat services and messaging services from Facebook, WhatsApp, and others. Instead, he says the goal is to be the go-to app for people when they're using mail on their phones by making it feel more like the texting and talking they're already doing.

WeMail is free, something Yuen says will continue while the company develops additional features, including bringing it to iOS in January. The service launches amid a sea of competing email apps that are all trying to solve increasingly crowded inboxes full of both important and unimportant emails. Consolidation of messages by sender is just one attempt at tackling that, while others like Google have tried to break down messages by context and importance. There's also been efforts that bolt on things like reminders and prioritizations to help people simply deal with things later. Yuen says the key to his own service is familiarity.

"We really cater to the way that people are used to communicating on mobile phones, and this organizes without teaching them new concepts like snoozes or swipes," he says. "There's nothing new to learn here."