Email is broken and Sparrow wants to fix it. A talk with its founder, Dominique Leca.

Email. It’s a technology that, once upon a time, excited us. It was an incredible feeling to get a message from someone without physically seeing them; however, as time has passed, email has become annoying. With the majority of your inbox being spam these days, and the remainder consisting of reminders to pay your bills, the whole thing has become a burden. Even for those whose inbox was their job, email was just, blah. It went from being a productive communication technology to a burden pretty quickly.

Some people ditched email almost entirely, and even traded it for a Twitter account. Others found other sources for communication, especially in the work force (Yammer, Basecamp, etc). Resumés now include links to Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+ as primary means for contact, instead of the cumbersome email address of the past. While the savvy are off experimenting with other forms of direct communication, what  happens to those that still require email? What about those that still use it on a daily basis? What about them? What can they do? Thankfully, two Frenchmen had the same problem and wanted to do something about it — they created a next-generation email client, its name: Sparrow.

The foundation of Sparrow: Enter Dominique Leca

Prior to Sparrow, Dominique Leca attended HEC Paris, the first business school in France, where they put a strong emphasis on internships. Leca took part in many different opportunities, including investment banking, acquisitions, advertising, and even law, his original career interest: “everything seemed a little bit too sad for me, so I just founded a company just a few months after the release of the first iPhone. Of course, we were building unofficial apps because the App Store wasn’t created yet. We were releasing some jailbreaked apps, but when Steve Jobs announced that an iOS App Store was going to be created, we were ready.”

Dominique Leca, Co-founder of Sparrow

From there, Leca and his team began releasing iPhone and iPad applications for newspapers, brands, and anything else they could at the time. Leca and his team found it to be an interesting business because of how quickly companies were realizing the benefits of mobility. The only thing that upset Leca was that he was creating “trash software. Things people would use three times and then push to the side.”

In the beginning, designing throw away apps was more than enough to scratch the itch, but once people started tossing away their apps for the next app of the moment, Leca knew things had to change.

Leca then decided to dabble in creating little games, eventually leading to the creation of GeoMaster, a game that tested your world geography knowledge. But still, the endeavour left something to be desired for Leca and his team. Leca struggled to find that one project that he’d devote all of his time to, so he left his current company and went on a hunt to find something he was passionate about, something he could do to help change the world. To get closer to finding that project, he asked himself what exactly needed to be fixed. Two months later Hoa Dinh Viet, Dom’s future co-founder, told him about a project he’d been working on for ten years – a mail engine:

[quote]He told me he had appreciated the work I had put into UI/UX at the previous company where we had worked together. He told me ‘let’s give it a shot. Let’s try to design something for the Mac. Then we could release it as a beta as fast as we can. So, we did it in the summer of 2010, if I remember well, and we released the first beta in October.[/quote]

They started off on a simple note, and Leca and Viet weren’t expecting the response they would receive. In the first week alone, the beta of Sparrow, their new email application, was downloaded over 70,000 times and during the whole beta phase, nearly 200,000 beta testers joined. “We knew that we had something,” said Leca.

That something was going to be huge; it was going to be the next generation email client. Clearly, based on the interest in the beta, consumers and professionals were looking for an alternative to the traditional email client, the traditional Outlook and Mail.app just wasn’t cutting it for most people anymore.

“We had this idea that mail was broken,” said Dom on why he started Sparrow. “We weren’t using Mail.app on the Mac because we found that it was taking up too much screen space and it was a huge application for something that shouldn’t be.”  Leca and Viet wanted email to be as simple as sending out a tweet – literally. So, in the beginning, they switched from Mail.app to Gmail. After all, Gmail was the most powerful solution to the email problem that currently existed and there were many “slim” apps and plugins to support it, but most of those slim applications just didn’t seem to be slim enough, or minimal enough to really pull off a streamlined email client.

They had an idea – it needed a design

With a framework, and email system in place, all the Sparrow team had to do was come up with a design that stayed true to the simple and minimal approach that they were looking to accomplish, but it didn’t come without a bit of controversy. Contrary to popular belief, Sparrow did not rip off Loren Brichter‘s famous Tweetie app. Rather, Leca believed in simplicity and thus contacted Brichter from the beginning of the project:

[quote]I wanted to ask him about the design of his sidebar. I said, man I’ve been thinking of a better way to switch accounts in a mail mac application. I’ve not found anything better or more efficient than what you’ve done. So can we just borrow it and use it? He said, “Hey man, do what you want.” So we just started this way and Loren helped us a lot. He tweeted about it so all his friends and many blogs picked up on it.[/quote]

Just like that Sparrow had found its muse.

Sparrow can’t be discussed on its design merit alone, despite its impressive interface. There is also the fancy technologies that have been built into the application. Technologies that are not available in other email clients. Sparrow brought Cloudapp and Dropbox support into its new-age email client, both of which are market-leading cloud technologies with great APIs. You may be asking yourself why Sparrow needs these technologies, but once you figure it out, it makes a lot of sense. For most, especially those using free email services like Gmail, size-limits on email attachments can be quite problematic. The Sparrow team has bravely attempted to solve the attachment limits through the use of popular cloud storage services. With a drag and drop, you can now upload a file of almost any size, without having to worry about the email being bounced by the recipient’s email server for size violations.

From start to finish, Sparrow had two major schedules that were met to bring the application to fruition. First, the mail engine side project took a decade to complete and there were a total of six engines altogether, whereas the idea for the app itself took around seven months to become reality.

What’s next for Sparrow

As for Sparrow’s future, the company hopes to make their application even faster. The next thing, naturally, is tackling more email platforms. “We’ve seen stats that shows there’s still a lot of people on services like Hotmail and stuff like that,” says Leca. A necessary update, but it’s unlikely the sexy rumor everyone wants to hear about at this point.

What about an iOS app? And the answer is – yes, it’s on its way to your iOS device. When can we expect it? Soon. That’s all I can say – for now.

As for Sparrow 2.0, Leca had this to say:

[quote]The main idea we have for version two is that the concept of messages will be thrown in the background and people will take a central place. It will be a people centric app. You won’t look for the last message you received, but for the last people who talked with you. In terms of navigation, and the way you will treat your mail, the functioning of labels, folders and stuff like that – it changes the way it works a lot. [/quote]

Minimal has remained the theme of Sparrow to date. The company believes that the technology already exists, but presentation is everything, and as it stands, it’s severely lacking. A saying from the Vedas claims that, “speech is the essence of humanity.” All of what humanity thinks and ultimately becomes is determined by the expression of ideas and actions through speech and its derivative, writing. Likewise, design is the essence of technology. Sparrow hasn’t changed electronic mail in terms of its bits and bytes; however, they have changed its presentation for the better. Email is broken, but Sparrow has brought a bag of tools and hopes to fix it.

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