Handle Tries a Task-Based Approach to Taming E-Mail Chaos

A new web service aims to complement Gmail with one-click tools for dealing with the messages -- important or otherwise -- which fill your inbox to the bursting point.

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I get way too much e-mail. I have trouble keeping track of it all. And the faster I can plow through the stuff that doesn’t matter, the more time I have for the (small) percentage of it that does. So I’m intrigued by Handle, a web-based service which officially launched on Monday at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York.

Handle’s creators call it an operating system for humans, but what it really is — at least in its initial form — is an ambitious to-do list with access to your inbox and tools for grinding it down to zero. (At the moment it only works with Gmail, and makes no attempt to replace it; it’s something you use alongside Gmail rather than as a substitute.) You can turn messages into tasks marked Must do, Should do or Want to (and, optionally, add them to a mini-calendar that helps you plan your day). You can also respond to messages, archive them or delete them.

Throughout, there’s an emphasis on speed. Almost everything you can do, you can do with one keyboard stroke — for instance, hitting the “1” key marks a message as a Must do, and hitting the “a” key archives it. It’s got a clean interface without gegaws that might get in the way. (I find that some imaginative tools which aim to tame e-mail clutter, such as Cloze, add new complications of their own.)

At the moment, Handle is a private beta; you can only get in if you can snag an invite. Judging from the time I’ve spent with it over the past few days, that’s not a tragedy. On my MacBook Pro, it felt like a glitchy rough draft. It sometimes displayed error messages, didn’t always show the latest incoming messages and had a few crucial interface elements which ran off the right-hand edge of the browser window.

Also, Handle doesn’t yet work at all on my two most important productivity devices: my iPad and iPhone. (In 2013, it’s a little startling to come across a web service that isn’t mobile-friendly from the moment its existence is known.) Nor do its to-do list and mini-calendar sync up with their Gmail counterparts.

The Handle folks have ambitious plans, including support for more e-mail systems (including Microsoft Exchange) and mobile versions. They plan to offer a free version of the service and for-pay offerings with more features. Their creation has plenty of potential, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it looks once they’ve polished it up and opened it to all comers.