Fleep is the word … it’s got groove, it’s got meaning…

I’ve just read about, then immediately joined, then immediately fallen in love with…  Fleep.

In common with many others, I have hated email for years; such a clunky old tool, used, because of its ubiquity and peerless network advantage, for everything – even though 90% of the use cases are horribly inappropriate (can you imagine the nightmares engendered by a 4 year old ‘reply all’ email used for arranging an annual street party?).

I have used many other things – google groups, wikis, chat, groupware, application-specific commenting tools – some of which were rather better, some of which were rather worse than email – but each of them not email, and sometimes that was good enough.

However, all of them required the other participants to do several extra things beyond work through their normal inbox. They had to sign up to a new service (new password, new interface, different paradigm, different quirks), they had to open something else – sometimes download a new app – and all for conversations with only me – because there was never anyone else using that same approach: because none of them were really IT, every refugee from email chose their own version of sub-optimality.

Just last week, my recent favourite tool hall.com announced that it had sold itself to Atlassian, to be merged into their groupware tool HipChat (yes, it really is called that – I can hardly bring myself to type it, never mind say it out loud). I was sad (and at the same time happy for the hall team, who I presume got a jump richer in the process), but now I a/ don’t care – because fleep is a quantum leap better and b/ think that the hall team are very smart (or very lucky) because fleep (or it and a small cloud of fleep-a-likes) is going to eat groupware for breakfast. Slack included.

What is it, you might be wondering, that has got this bloke so excited about a damn chat-room tool?

You’d be right – I am excited. Rather pathetically, I suppose – but I can remember being this excited when I started using Google in late ’98 – the extraordinary difference you just knew that it would make after using it for half an hour. Before that I suppose it was being member number 110 of the Hacienda (they started the membership at 51, naturally). [disclaimer: this excludes excitement about things done by people within my immediate circle!]

And what is it that underlies this excitement? Well, the rather simple, but utterly killer feature that you can use fleep without getting anyone else to do anything different – they can carry on using their crappy email client forever if they want, while you can use fleep as the elegant groupware tool that it is. Fleep doesn’t bother to make them join – if they aren’t ‘in’, it just sends them an email. But at your end, the messages and replies are arranged in a single, neat chat-room.

The room tools are well designed, but not astonishing – it’s that simple choice of allowing non-members to be included without constraint that is the clever part.

And why will it eat the current crop of groupware tools for lunch? Well, partly for the same reason as above – it is inclusive, so that for many small outfits it will be easier to get their staff to use fleep than it will to keep them corralled into slack/basecamp/whatever, and partly because fleep will self-market via the same mechanism that gmail did – it will be infectious, and will simply get to places that would never hear about groupware, because they are places without a digital strategy – ie they are like most places.

Issues? There are a few – big ones – and if they aren’t sorted quickly, fleep could be overtaken by a ‘me-too’ version with a grander vision.

The primary concern is that email is defined by a simple, public protocol. Anyone with the technical skill can build any sort of email managing tool they wish. While this makes email prey to all sorts of misuse, it has a key and crucial characteristic, which is that anyone with an internet connection can use email – if you want to, you can send and receive email via a command-line tool. Email can be everywhere, easily, because it can be built into anything digital.

Fleep consists of a proprietary interface on top of a proprietary data architecture, with offline use through a downloaded fleep application. All of these give fleep considerable advantages over email in terms of control of security, spam and malware (and over their competition at this early stage of their existence), but at the same time constitute potential brakes to large-scale adoption.

I have no idea how fleep’s business plan looks, but they look to be thinking small to me; although their basic service is free, it is limited to 5Gb for file (ie attachment) storage, and they seem to think they will make money by charging companies for team usage. It’s as if they had the vision to invent a better email, but can’t see beyond getting bigger than slack.

If I was them, I’d go the Whatsapp route, charge individuals 99p a year as a flat fee, do what gmail did with constantly growing data allowances, forget enterprise, and go for a billion users, while all the time working on an underlying protocol that could serve the world, that could replace the email protocol while incorporating modern security, encryption, spam and malware detection tools. This could be their gift, once they were in the unassailable position that gmail is.

Who knows? Maybe this is their plan. In any case, I shall be moving my end of my street’s reply-all nightmare onto fleep, and encouraging others to do the same – maybe the poor woman that moved to Australia two years ago can finally be spared any more messages about plastic cups.

And as for you – go on – try it! [disclosure: I have no connection whatsoever with fleep – although if there’s anything that would tempt me to buy shares it would be this!]

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