The Report of the Death of Email Was an Exaggeration

Those of us who are involved in the technology industry have a common tendency to look forward and ask, "What comes next?" This tendency is natural given that we work in such a rapidly changing industry, and it's beneficial because it helps us prepare for changes in the technology we depend on to earn a living. As with so many other beneficial traits, though, it's possible to have too much of a good thing.

I'm reminded of that philosophy as I look at the trend among analysts and the press to dismiss email as a technology that's soon to go away, sent to an early grave by the onslaught of social media technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare. There's an increasingly prevalent school of thought that says that these communication methods will soon eclipse email as the dominant means of communication. I'm not sure I agree, and I'm not just saying that because I'm so intertwined in the email industry.

Supporters of this theory have some evidence on their side. For example they cite the behavior of Facebook users, particularly in the cohort of Facebook users under 30. Many of these users prefer to communicate with their friends and acquaintances through Facebook messages instead of email. It’s also true that for users of all ages, Facebook messages replace email for at least some of their personal communications. Now, you could certainly argue that a Facebook message is essentially an email message, one where Facebook's network is used to transport the message and where only Facebook-approved clients can be used.

If that’s true, then Facebook is essentially running a competitor to Google's Gmail, Microsoft's Windows Live Mail, and other consumer-targeted services. That’s not nearly the same as saying that Facebook is killing off email. Furthermore, contrast Facebook’s walled-garden approach with the standards-based world of Internet email and the differences seem to be primarily in implementation, not in intention. Although Facebook could certainly launch an email service targeted at the same market now satisfied by Windows Live Mail, Gmail, and Yahoo! Mail, it's hard to see what the company would gain from doing so when there's already such a large volume of messages exchanged using its existing infrastructure.

Other social media systems, however, don't provide as much evidence for this school of thought. Twitter, for example, can be very useful; I use it myself ( @PaulRobichaux) and find that it can be useful, informative, and fun. But it's not a replacement for email. It doesn't give me a way to exchange much in the way of content with other users, in the way that I can easily attach documents, pictures, or other material to an email message. I can't communicate with long streams of formatted text, or take advantage of the many conversation threading, sorting, and filtering features common in modern email clients. Other services, such as Foursquare, fall into the same boat: They have a lot of intrinsic utility, but they're not going to replace email, no matter how much overpaid "web 2.0" analysts claim otherwise.

One thing that's clearly happening is that client vendors are working to unify multiple streams of communication into their devices and platforms. Microsoft did this early on. If you remember back to the time of Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server, the Exchange Instant Messaging server used the same client as Microsoft's consumer messaging system; by adding the Exchange IM plug-in, one client would suffice for both. Of course, as technology advanced, Microsoft's online clients became less unified. However, if you take a look at the SMS integration features included in Exchange Server 2010, Outlook 2010, and Windows Mobile 6.5, you start to get an inkling for what Microsoft has in mind.

Another data point: the frequent talk coming from the Microsoft Lync product group about how phone numbers are obsolete relics of a bygone age. To communicate with someone, they say, you should know who you want to talk to and let your communication devices or software figure out the best way to reach them, whether that be through a traditional phone connection, SIP, or some not-yet-invented technology.

More immediately, Microsoft and Apple are both working hard to claim the title for "largest number of integrated services" in their forthcoming mobile device software releases. Windows Phone Mango and iOS 5.0 both integrate Facebook, Twitter, and a variety of other services. From what I've seen so far, Microsoft's integration is cleaner and easier to use, but I wouldn't count Apple out of the running just yet.

For an example of what I mean by integration, consider this scenario: You're driving down the road, with your Windows Phone Mango device linked to your car stereo via Bluetooth, and you get an incoming text message. The phone says, "You have a new text message—would you like to read it?" If you answer yes, the phone uses onboard text-to-speech to read the message to you—and then, using speech-to-text, lets you compose a reply. This sounds very cool, and it is, but it's cooler still when you consider that it works with Facebook chat messages and other data types besides SMS. Many data types, one client, one access method—that's Microsoft's bet.

Email might find that it has new peers, but until I see much more conclusive evidence from the "email is dying" crowd, I'm going to persist in my belief that email will be with us for many years yet—joined with, but not replaced by, other communication systems such as Facebook. That's my story and I'm sticking to it

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