Right now we closely associate an inbox with an email application like Microsoft Outlook, and these applications have grown in to task, schedule, and contact managers. With the increasing use of RSS we have another place to look for information – the aggregator. Some aggregators actually make the aggregator appear to be a component of the email application, allowing the user to read their feeds within Outlook.
Yet as Seattleduck points out, it would be nice to collect a lot more than just email, including things like websites, remote files, and more. He recommends tags as a possible solution. I had said that folders already provide that ability, but he provided some good reasons why folders don’t always work.
What if instead of thinking about email as the inbox, the email application actually generated RSS or Atom feeds of your email, appointments, contacts, and tasks. You could then subscribe within your aggregator to those feeds. Google already provides an Atom feed for your Gmail account. EVDB, the new events database, provides an RSS feed for events.
The aggregator user could then group these different feeds together as they saw fit, perhaps tagging them, and then also including links to outside services like Flickr or Technorati for those tags. Since RSS and Atom feeds represent published information, a change remotely won’t affect what the user sees. There would also be no problems with duplication, because multiple uses of the feed do not constitute multiple copies, but merely multiple references to the same information.
So basically your aggregator becomes your universal inbox, for want of a better metaphor.
Other institutions like banks or travel companies could also generate RSS feeds for our statements or our travel information. The subscription nature of RSS won’t eliminate spam sent through email, but as RSS is an opt-in mechanism by default we will be able to control other unwanted intrusions.
Aggregators don’t appear all that different from traditional email inboxes, but they can grow in functionality as new uses for RSS and Atom feeds appear.
The use of OPML files would also allow us to switch easily from one aggregator to another as better tools arrive, or to use tools like Microsoft start. You could even publish or make public some or all of your OPML to others so that they can see what you see.
Even Robert Scoble says he spends 90% of his Internet time in his RSS news aggregator.
Just imagine, a single tool, easy to write, and not controlled by any company, based on standards, and easily extensible as new applications come along, limited only by your imagination. And if you want to deliver information to anyone, you just have to syndicate it as an RSS or Atom feed.
[Update: John Battelle is talking about the Universal Inbox too.]