Saturday, August 4, 2007

What's Wrong with Email?

Why is everyone gunning for E-Mail? The prognostications of its imminent demise (or calls for its outright impeachment) are constant – each week a new report on how old-fashioned and oh-so-1980's it is in the eyes of the MySpace generation (see here and here).

So, what's wrong with it? Or more appropriately, what is so new and different about the contenders for its crown?

The argument seems to be that email is old-fashioned, disorganized, riddled with spam, and used for too many things for which there are better solutions.

Old-Fashioned? Yes. Email is essentially text-based. Yes, it does pictures and you can force it to do formatting or attach video or audio. But you cannot rely on anything but the text reaching the other end. (That is part of its old-fashioned charm....)

Disorganized? Yes again. Folders are an oh too familiar mechanism for organizing information. But I don't know anyone who has actually got their mail under control. The volume and nature of email changes too frequently, it confounds and exceeds the ability for any individual to keep its structure up-to-date. As a consequence the inbox starts to bulge like an overstuffed filing cabinet. Search and sort (by sender, by subject) become the primary tools for finding old mail.

Spam? You got it. Nuff said.

Used for too many things? Well, wait a minute...

If email is all that bad, why is it used so much? It can’t only be out of habit and inertia.

Email is just a container, like files are containers, or websites. Email is traditionally the predominant container for four reasons:
  • It is private, personal. It is your email and acts as your online identity. (This is reinforced by the number of other internet services that use the email address as your unique identifier.) You get to control how it organized (or disorganized) and what gets shared or not.

  • It is easy to use. Ignoring the disorganization problem, it is as easy to use as file folders, with the added advantage that it is equally easy for others to send you content – and for you to delete their messages if desired.

  • It’s ubiquitous. Pretty much anything can be put into an email message container. This is part of its simplicity. Of course, it is also part of its organizational disfunction since there are no capabilities for “tagging” content besides the basic to/from/subject and folder hierarchy.

  • Text is good. It's not fancy; it's not hip; it's not modern. But text is still the most pervasive, low-fi medium of expression we have.

The fact is that email is so simple and so ubiquitous that it can be used for many different tasks – personal messages, corporate announcements, reminders, alerts, scheduled events, sharing and storing projects documents, archiving... even rants, tirades, and laundry lists. The fact that any two of these might be done more effectively elsewhere doesn't counteract the importance that I control it and I have everything I need in one place.

Which brings us to new users -- those who do not need email and therefore have not filled it with both content and context yet. The latest article from cNet restates the fact that teens don't use email, eschewing it for instant messages, phone texting, and social networking sites. How have they managed to avoid email's siren call?

First, they have alternatives. Before 5-10 years ago, the only alternative to email was the telephone, which fulfills very few of email's benefits.

Next, the alternatives are both public and private at the same time. IM and text messaging are private. Social networking sites provide essentially private within-the-site email as well as more public messaging/commenting areas.

In almost all cases, the alternatives are as easy to use as email or easier.* Oh! And they are almost all text-based. So text is still good.

Which leaves only ubiquity. Here is where the true distinction arises. Few if any of the tools of modern youth share the ubiquity of email (except phone). But there is a hint about the meaning of this distinction too, which is as youngsters are not fully involved in the working world, they don't care about ubiquity – or a single identity.

An article in the BBC points out that just as the youth of today flock to the web 2.0 sites, they also happily abandon and replace tools -- and their identities on those sites -- at whim. They use multiple sites – each with a separate identity or multiple identities – as needed to keep up with their friends. This works when socializing is your major activity. However, it is in direct conflict with the needs of business – where unique, persistent, and reliable identities and ubiquity are essential. By this I mean business as an employee and as a consumer, where commercial sites still predominantly or exclusively require an email address and a credit card.

So will this flood of polymorphic youth carry their current behaviors into the business world? I suspect they will try, but they won't succeed. To ensure reliability and security, firms are likely to continue to insist on single identities and a ubiquitous communication vehicle for business – in other words, email. However, four possible developments might change this prognosis:

Development #1: A secure mechanism for aliasing different accounts to a unique identity is developed, so I can have any number email accounts, blogs, IM accounts, etc that all are reliably and securely associated with my online persona. Open Directory aims at this goal, but it is unclear if it is easy enough or understandable enough to be trusted by humans.

Development #2: Telephones replace email. Originally, telephones could not compete, since their were a strictly audio medium. However, they now do text, pictures, video, store and forward (i.e. Voicemail), etc. And phone numbers are – almost exclusively – associated with individuals. However, to become ubiquitous, they will need to develop a way to access the data associated with your phone number from other devices – specifically PCs. This does not seem to be a direction the phone companies are interested in going in. Also, the current pricing for add-on phone services (such as texting) is simply exorbitant and prohibitive for phone-as-ID to become pervasive.

Development #3: Credit cards replace email. It is the business of credit card companies to manage a reliable one-to-one relationship between credit card numbers and users. It is perhaps the only truly reliable unique, global identifier. (A person's social security number is also reliable and unique, but is only valid within the country to which it applies.) Currently, credit card companies provide none of the communication services of email, texting, voice, etc. However, if the situation gets worse, there is an opportunity for them to step in and both solve a problem and further cement their control over their customers personal and financial data. (The advantages of credit card IDs over phone Ids is they are cheap – practically free – as long as you pay your billls...)

Development #4: the IM service providers A.) agree on real interoperability and IM addresses become ubiquitous and a true rival to email, B.) refuse to agree on interoperability (which seems to be their current path) and users force the industry to accept multiple identities as a consequence of their inability to agree-to-agree on a crucial piece of technology, or C.) they muddle along half-competing, half-collaborating and frustrating the user base so much they rise up and adopt an open source solution (such as open directory) as a requirement for managing their own identities.

Quite frankly, I don't believe any of these options will occur. The incentive to “rule the roost” of user identity management is likely to be counteracted by competition from the other contenders and the inertia of changing from the current a perfectly valid option, email. Of the lot of them, I believe the phone is the only replacement that is truly likely to occur. The real driving factor is when wireless phone services return to being a commodity – as they eventually must – priced as a low-cost service rather than an overpriced per usage luxury. The sooner this happens, the more likely phone services have a chance to actually replace email. The longer it takes, the more entrenched email addresses will becomes as unique identifiers and the less likely they will be displaced.

Email usage will drop off as the predominance of IM, text messaging, and other alternatives increase. But at the same time, email vendors will be integrating these features into their products, leveraging their presence and platform ubiquity to maintain their leadership as the users' communication identity.

* Footnote: I would claim text messaging is the exception to the rule concerning ease of use. But given the form factor of current cell phones, email can do no better on the same device, teaching us all to type with our thumbs...

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Alex said...
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