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The Death of Email

I'll never forget a phone message that my wife's grandmother left for us years ago. "Dear Paul and Stephanie," she began as if composing a letter. And she even signed off with, "love, grandma," just as she would have, again, with a written letter. The technology behind an answering machine—quaint today, really, as it was tape-based—was beyond her, like a magical device from the future. So she approached it not in keeping with its then-modern attributes, but rather with something that was (for her) familiar.

Similar disconnects have occurred throughout history. If you've seen the (highly recommended) TV show "Deadwood," an accurate depiction of frontier life in the 1870's, you may recall one of the main characters musing about the installation of a telegraph. "Messages from invisible sources," he complains, pointing at the new poles. "Or what some people think of as progress." His complaint: The immediacy of this form of communication didn't give one the time needed to compose proper responses to questions.

We've been dealing with the evolution of person-to-person communications since there have been people to communicate with. From smoke signals to fire towers. From telegraph to telephone land lines to mobile phones. From fax to email to instant messages. And so on.

Today, we're facing another communications evolution. And like the transitions of the past, the established standard isn't going to go down without a fight, without its many adherents claiming that this standard still has a lot to offer. But as with the past, we're going to move on, inevitably, until we reach the point where we look back on what was with nostalgia but no sense of regret.

I'm writing about the death of email.

When electronic mail was invented, it was nearly instantaneous compared to the postal mail it was designed to replicate and ultimately replace. (As an odd historical note, email obviously hasn't replaced snail mail and likely never will. The reason is simple: Email itself was a stopgap solution that is itself being supplanted.)

Today, email is a pervasive, mission-critical service for individuals, businesses, and governments. It is also obsolete, and like the dinosaurs before it, unaware of the metaphorical asteroid that is now racing to jettison it to the history books. That asteroid is the coming generation of people, now in school, who couldn't care less about email. For them, email isn't instantaneous and it isn't relevant. And they don't use it, not like they use more immediate forms of communication, including text messaging and IM (instant messaging)—which, let's face it, are basically the same thing.

These people don't care about us or our traditions. Don't get me wrong, they're not malevolent about it. They just literally don't care. And while they may find our muttering about "retention needs" and "conversation threads" interesting in a polite, don't-agree-too-much-or-they'll-keep-talking-about-it kind of way, they literally don't care. Not about our concerns. And not about our previous and old-fashioned email technologies.

These people are going to grow up. And while it will be for future generations to decide whether life in a sound bite culture has permanently destroyed both language and the human race's ability to read and write long passages of text, one thing is certain: Just as our generation demanded access to email, this coming generation will demand their own, more instant forms of communications.

The turning point in my thinking about this was, of all things, a Facebook announcement from earlier this month. The online juggernaught was rumored to be prepping a so-called "Gmail killer," which many took to mean that Facebook was going to scrap its Messaging functionality in lieu of standard email. Not so fast, my aging friends. Facebook is a young company with very young patrons. And they just don't work that way.

"We don't think a modern messaging system is going to be email, "Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg said at the announcement. The reason? Too slow and too unlike the more immediate communication techniques his 500 million users prefer. So Facebook's new Messaging system will incorporate email, but won't be based around email. One gets the idea it's only in there for the fogies like you and I.

Like many of you, I suspect, I don't embrace this change. And I'm not even suggesting that we need to prepare for this change instantly: Unlike the dinosaurs, email won't die overnight. And you can even see hints of the future in today's technical products, like "unified communications." We'll get there.

But then we don't have a choice. Email is dead.

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