Email was the original “killer application” and easily the most widely deployed Internet application out there by a wide margin. It’s vendor neutral, works great via low bandwidth, and is even easy enough for my mom to use. But poor old email is falling on hard times of late; it’s now officially the tech-cognoscenti’s favorite whipping boy (here‘s the article by Chad Lorenz which started this conversation). The ultimate “ouch” factor was a study noting that younger people “only use email to communicate with old people”. That one line zinger spread around the Internet faster than the MyDoom virus, and soon enough every websphere analyst and pundit was crooning to the same tune.
The 4 Pillars of Email Dissatisfaction
The anti-email tsunami seems to hang on 4 pillars. Here’s what they are and my humble take on them.
1. Promotes “broadcasting” general garbage rather than conversations – Spot on, marketing and PR need to be about targeted participation rather than blasting people. Just take a look at Brian Solis taking a bullet for the PR industry after a Chris Anderson rant to the “lazy flacks” in the PR industry. Both these guys are right on the money. If your PR consultant’s strategy consists primarily of blasting email lists, I suggest you smile politely and show them the door.
2. Poor indexing and searching. Again, spot on. How much do you waste each week searching your inbox? I’m flummoxed at how on earth Inboxes became the most widely distributed “database” on planet earth. If this describes your company, email me to get a wiki ASAP. Seriously, you’ll thank me later.
3. Not scalable. Only half true: on one hand, email the outbox has scaled absolutely brilliantly considering it was a messaging system never really designed to accommodate billions of people. On the other hand, inboxes don’t scale at all. I recently spoke to an IT manager who told me email is fine, since you can copy infinite numbers of people on an email. My reply was “you might get an infinite number of replies”.
4. Spam. Spot on, unless you’re this fellow.
I even work for a company who provides collaborative websites without all the email melodrama of blocking Nigerian scams and Viagra ads only to you’re your customer’s email fell into the spam bucket. I should eager to shovel dirt on email’s coffin.
Why Email Will Still Be around for a While
I’m not, because divesting a society of an entrenched technology is not a quick process. Earlier year, I worked with a CEO who implemented company-wide email for the first time in 2007, after running on personal employee emails. It’s unlikely he’ll move away from it, and he’s not alone. Email is etched into the corporate world’s DNA to far too great and extent. While we’re at it, if email is dead, why do social networks use an email address as a username? Surely, some communication will (and should) transition away from email, but in a complementary fashion rather that completely disruptive. That transition is simply not going to happen overnight. If you’re not convinced, then consider this: there are still 500,000 people in the United States who are renting their phones from AT&T.
Besides, killing off email right now makes no sense. It now serves a vital function: it is an accepted, vendor-neutral method of archiving relevant documentation evidence supporting a wide variety of traditional enterprise functions such as sales, marketing, human resources, and finance. All of this is just a fancy way of saying email is a CYA tool, and hence it’s not likely to go away as long as people need to cover their.. assets. Until something comes along which is ubiquitously accepted as a trusted means of documentation, email is here to stay.
Inbox 2.0 is a Mashup
The email last rites folks are kind of right: they are seeing the trees, but missing the forest. While teenagers in academia have entirely rejected email, existing processes in corporate environments will take hold in the professional sphere. Thus we have two different sets of needs served by two different sets of tools. What’s happening here is a bifurcation of messaging and communication – personal communications have become the exclusive domain of social networks. Enterprise communications has become a mixture of things: email, wikis/microblogs, and instant messaging. Each provides a unique advantage to the other forms of communication. The real question we need to be asking is how to mash up these inputs into a coherent inbox 2.0 which provides meaning to the user.