The social network wars are over. The winner: email!

Rampant innovation in email has transformed it into the best social network on the Internet.

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Second, people are subscribing to and reading online publications, maintaining to-do lists, getting calendar and other notifications and a gazillion other things.

The new world of intelligent email

Google this week started rolling out an optional Gmail redesign that auto-sorts messages into tabbed categories, such as "Primary" (real people), "Social" (social networking messages), "Promotions" (commercial content you signed up for), "Updates" (alerts and notifications from various services) and "Forums" (updates from online message boards). You can take or leave any of these tabs. Gmail will auto-sort your email, but you can also use filters to make email with certain criteria go into certain tabs or simply "train it" by dragging and dropping emails into the tabs in which you want future such emails to go.

This is a really handy update because instead of treating all incoming mail as either spam or not spam, it divides email into six categories, which better reflects the reality of email.

Microsoft recently shut down its Hotmail service and moved everybody over to Outlook.com, the cloud version of its Outlook email application.

Like Gmail, Outlook.com is increasingly good at integrating other services, bringing in Skype video calls and chats, including chats with Google users, as well as SkyDrive support, which is Microsoft's cloud storage service. It also enables users to have their contacts automatically updated from multiple social networks.

Another cool trend is the way mobile interface designs are improving. A Dropbox app called Mailbox recently became a darling of the iPhone crowd. It hooks into your Gmail account and provides a fantastic, touch-native interface. Swiping a message all the way to the right deletes it, swiping part way to the right archives it, and swiping it to the left brings up a screen of options for making the message go away temporarily, from "later today" to "tomorrow" to "someday" and several others.

Mailbox is really simple and that's the point. All mobile email should work like that.

Dropbox launched an iPad version of Mailbox last week and promises an Android version soon.

Email as a platform

Beyond intelligence, integration and interface improvements, the status of email as a platform is one of the most intriguing developments.

Email applications are getting more features all the time. But increasingly, if your email service lacks a feature you want, you can add it with a plug-in or add-on.

A new world of Gmail and Outlook add-ons, which are actually browser extensions, enable you to do things like delay the sending of email, track messages and get notifications when recipients open your message. Some of the best ones are Boomerang, Bananatag and Right Inbox.

Other add-ons let you get around file attachment size limitations. Still others serve specific professionals, such as salespeople.

Email add-ons and plug-ins have become so numerous that I can't even list all the categories. To find them, simply search the Web for "Gmail plugins" or "Outlook plugins."

Why email is the best social network

Email is not only the biggest, most important and in some ways most vibrant social network, it's also the best.

The reason is that as social networks become more automated and algorithmically determined, and noisy and full of intrusive advertising, email provides a user interface to those same networks, but with you in control.

Using the notification settings on each social network, as well as the filters or rules on your email service and browser add-ons and plug-ins, you can get all the benefits of all your social networks -- including the same people -- without most of the irritating downsides.

By all means, let's discover and explore social networking sites and spend time enjoying our favorites.

But don't forget that email isn't just the oldest social network, it's also the biggest, the broadest, the most user-controllable, the most integrated, the most powerful and ultimately the best social network on the Internet.

This article, "The Social Network Wars Are Over. The Winner: Email!," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him on Google+. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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