Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Death of E-Mail

To borrow a well worn phrase, the news of the (imminent) death of e-mail has been greatly exaggerated.

Yes, it is more than 80% spam. Only, in fact, it isn't. While it is true that all the e-mail servers on the planet handle this much spam, the amount of spam e-mails seen by end recipients is far lower. In my Google Mail - which also aggregates several other e-mail accounts I own - I think I see maybe 30% of messages go into Spam folder. In my corporate Nokia account I see no spam whatsoever.

But this is all almost beside the point.

The biggest criticism levied against e-mail these days is that it is a clunky, old-fashioned way to communicate unfit for the twenty-first century. We should all give it up in favour of instant messaging (IM), Twitter, and Facebook-style communication tools. If I was writing this just a week or three ago I could have also listed Google Wave. But apparently Google gave up on it (and no, giving up is not a mark of success). Novell seems to want to try to carry the torch, but what comes out of it remains to be seen.

Frankly, I don't really see how this can happen. As old-fashioned and clunky as it is (and it is, really, in terms of design) there's still nothing that comes close to being able to replace the most important use cases for e-mail.

IM chat is great (and often a great time waster, too), but any multi-party conversation in it is - to put it very mildly - challenging. Plus, and probably the worst, it forces immediacy and speed of response that will often work to the detriment of quality of content. So, informal catching up with your mates is a great use of IM - provided you're both (or all) awake and at the keyboard at the same time, but any formal discussion will be seriously hampered. For cases where such immediacy is beneficial a teleconference is a much better medium.

Twitter and Facebook I really can't see as tools for anything but shouting stuff at the world at large. yes, you may be able to fine tune the limits of such a world, and a modicum of conversation is possible, but again, this is not really suited for serious communication. And here I am not talking about big (or even small) companies talking to, sorry, with their customers. For this, both these systems are great - but mostly because it is a matter of the companies mostly talking to customers, rather than having a conversation of equals.

I can also turn this argument around, and have a look at what can be done better via e-mail.

First and foremost, you can have a good think about what you write, then write and edit it at your leisure. You can write as much or as little as you want or see fit.You can also pour over what you're replying to as much as you need before even starting to think about a reply - if any.

Next, you can truly fine tune your audience. People can be added to the list of recipients at any stage of conversation - with the added benefit that they'll be able to see the whole of previous conversation, too, if it has been properly quoted. Of course, people can also be removed from lists of recipients (but you shouldn't do it unless they ask for it themselves). If you really want to be bad mannered about your e-mails you can also add people as blind carbon copy recipients, thus making them spies, and yourself a traitor. In this, the possibilities are truly endless - to borrow another well worn phrase.

Then comes the ability to enhance (or "enhance") your e-mail with various levels of formatting, and attachments. Used wisely and sparingly, both can add great value - as can careful use of quoting bits of what you're replying to. All of this is available in IM and Facebook, too, but I'd argue it is much more difficult to do, and does not necessarily add the same sort of value.

Finally, there is persistence. It is much easier, and much more convenient, to store old e-mails. It follows only naturally it is also easier to index and search it, too. Yes, you can save IM chat logs, and Facebook and Twitter provide some sort of persistence, but none of them can match the flexibility of e-mail in searching for information. Not to mention that on Facebook and Twitter at least, it is not just you who can search what went before.

So, in conclusion, while e-mail will eventually completely replace paper mail - and to a great extent has already done so - I would be extremely surprised if any of the communication tools currently in vogue ever do the same for e-mail. I am not saying that e-mail as it is now is the best solution to the problem of communication in the modern age. I guess what I am saying is that I believe that whatever eventually replaces e-mail has to provide for most if not all of the use cases now served by it - the use cases not being served by other current tools. In building a better mousetrap we need to remember that the new one still has to catch mice!