Email: The Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated

1Executive Summary

Email first emerged back in 1965 as a way for users of time-sharing mainframes to communicate, but it wasn’t until the ’90s that usage really exploded. It totally supplanted written memos in businesses and replaced a lot of phone communication, thus becoming the “killer app” of the early Internet generation. Recently, the increased use of alternative communication tools — Twitter and other microblogging services, instant messaging, SMS, social media and others — has caused speculation about the “death of email.” But will alternative communication tools providing a real challenge to email’s dominance as a professional and personal messaging platform?

Why is Email So Useful?

There are a few reasons why email became so pervasive, and continues to be so useful today.

  • It’s universal. Nearly everyone online has an email account. You can send an email to anyone and know they’ll be able to receive it. It also works internationally and across cultures.
  • It’s simple. You don’t need to explain to anyone how to send you a file using email. Unlike IM and social networks, for example, there’s only one network to use: you don’t have to pick one to use (or be subscribed to many).
  • It’s asynchronous. Unlike IM, where both parties need to be online for it to work, emails are stored until the receiver is able to deal with them.
  • It has few constraints. If you want to send a message of any length over Twitter or SMS, you’ll soon bump into a character limit that forces you to split your message up or use abbreviated “text speak” to fit your message into the space available. Email enables you to send much richer messages: you can include as much information as you like, use HTML to add formatting, and easily attach supporting documentation or files.
  • It’s controllable. Individuals and businesses can run their own email servers. You don’t need to rely on a third party to provide your messaging service.

However, email also has its fair share of problems, many of which could be overcome by using alternative communication platforms. It’s currently used for a lot of purposes to which it is not well suited: sharing files, broadcasting status messages, arranging meetings, subscribing to content, and carrying on conversations. It’s also plagued by spam (Cisco’s Senderbase currently estimates that about 85 percent of all email sent is spam) and viruses.

New Services Challenge Email’s Dominance

Over the past few years, we’ve seen reports that email’s dominance is being challenged by other messaging tools. It started a few years ago with reports that younger generations — particularly teenagers — were abandoning email in favor of instant messaging and social networks like Facebook. In 2005, teens participating in a focus group for a Pew Internet study said that they viewed email as something to be used to communicate with “old people.”

exact-target-ball-state-university-message-preferences-age-group-september-20081

In a 2008 study by ExactTarget and Ball State State University, respondents under the age of 18 showed a clear preference for SMS over email (preferred by 42 percent of respondents, compared to 27 percent for email and 16 percent for instant messaging). For the 18-to-24 year-old group, email was still not favorite, sharing the top spot with SMS (both preferred by 34 percent of respondents, compared to 19 percent preferring instant messaging). Only the over-25 groups showed a preference for email.

This shift away from email appears to be happening to the older generation, too, albeit more slowly. The BBC reported on a recent Nielsen study that says social networking sites are now more popular than webmail sites.

Email Remains Strong in the Workplace

It’s been recognized for some time that there are problems with email in the workplace. Back in 2006, a British Computer Society paper suggested that businesses should look at replacing email with other messaging systems for certain applications. Prior to that there were reports that spam was becoming such a menace that businesses would have to move to a completely new, separate email system, but despite such concerns, email remains the preferred messaging tool for businesses.

twitter-feb-chart(image via TechCruch)

The meteoric growth of Twitter and, prior to that, Facebook and Myspace, has encouraged the development of many social networks and microblogging platforms for the enterprise, like Yammer and present.ly. But will the introduction of these tools reduce firms’ reliance on email?

Some sections of the blogosphere certainly think so.  Hutch Carpenter, director of marketing and online communications for Spigit, has argued that these tools will increase communication between employees, while decreasing the amount of email sent.

Socialcast’s CEO Tim Young takes an even more extreme view: “Email is dead. If your company is relying on email for communication and collaboration, your company is walking dead in this new economy.” Of course, both Socialcast and Spigit offer communication tools for the enterprise market, so these opinions should be taken with a grain of salt. But there’s no doubt that companies would be remiss not to look at the potential productivity gains of using such tools.

The Outlook for Email

Email isn’t dead. It has proved remarkably effective and resilient as an electronic communications medium. The number of email users is likely to continue to grow. A 2008 Radicati Group study estimates that the total number of mailboxes will rise from some 2 billion in 2008 to 2.5 billion by 2011. Further data from the Radicati Group shows that email growth over the past five years has remained relatively constant with no significant tailing off.

radicati

Over time, I think we will start to see some tailing off of email usage, but the change will be very gradual. Personal usage of email is likely to see a decline before business usage. The shift illustrated by teenagers in the Pew Internet and ExactTarget studies is likely to continue to move into the general population, largely because functionality that we used email for is handled more effectively by other communication tools.

Conversations work better over IM. SMS is instant, as most people always have their phones with them. Microblogs are better for status updates and sharing content with friends. Social networks handle arranging events and sharing photos. However, given the sheer volume of meesages sent (250 billion per day in 2009), we’ll need to see a massive increase in the use of alternative communication tools to see even a small dent in email’s numbers.

While businesses will start to move to take advantage of the productivity benefits of using other communication platforms,  email is very entrenched. Many business systems and processes are built around email, and any move to using new tools and techniques will take time, particularly for larger organizations. As email currently “works” for most businesses, hurdles encountered in implementing a new system will discourage organizations from a move away from email.

One of the reasons we won’t see any dramatic shift away from email in business is that there is no single competitor; there are various platforms that will chip away at the tasks that email handles currently as businesses adapt their systems over time. Short email conversations will be replaced by IM (indeed, it’s likely that this has already happened in many businesses). Collaboration will be handled with proprietary tools rather than files shared over email. Status updates — letting the rest of the company know what you’re doing — will migrate away from group emails to microblogging tools.

However, because email is universal and is still a very suitable medium for many types of business correspondence, it’s hard to see it being completely replaced yet.

Simon Mackie is the Editor of WebWorkerDaily.

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