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The death of eMail (Part I)

December 1, 2007

Matt, who has the most original About Me entry of all time on his blog, is getting upset about email volumes and issuing dire prognostications about its future. Patrick in a typically thoughtful post picks up on the theme, extends it and issues a clarion cry to let ephemeral communications be ephemera. He also references my long standing argument that organisations need to institute a detoxification programme for the plague of email addiction that has arisen over the last decade.

Now while I think we have a problem, I also think there is a slight danger here of going over the top and getting confused by numbers. Matt provides some useful ones, estimating that 35 trillion emails, of which 40% will be spam will be sent this year. Add in three trillion texts he says, and it makes blogs and wikis seem somewhat puny. Well I am not so sure about that, but that is for Part II, for the moment let us set the context of this conversation.

Now we need to remember that we are dealing with a phenomena that is less than a decade old in mass practice. Matt sent his first email in 1993. I think I can beat him there, but I didn’t keep records. I do know that in 1995 while email use was becoming pervasive it was still novel, as was collaboration and the the internet in general. Go back to 1990 and access to computing itself was limited in most companies.

At least eight years ago (at an IKM meeting) I argued that sooner or later people were going to realise that the whole internet thing, including email was going to hit massive problems of scalability. I was treated with some derision at the time, and when I created the first detoxification programmes a few years later the invective increased. I also argued strongly at the time of the IBM takeover of Lotus that the office products should be abandoned and they should focus on collaboration and workflow, with email as a tag on rather than engender Microsoft to compete in their area of strength. In practice they tried to take on Microsoft, competing email functionality (remember ccMail) with email that was more or less free if you took on the dominant office product of the day. As was inevitable they lost, not only that, but by not moving the ground to collaboration and workflow they lost the high ground of knowledge management and let an inferior product (Sharepoint) to start to intrude into the space. Without market share, you loose your functional advantage pretty soon as you don’t have the cash or the user base to develop against a low functionality competitor which has overtaken you in market share, and soon achieves higher levels of functionality.

Now in the mean time more tools have evolved. Not only the blogs and the wikis, but also tools such as Facebook. Both Patrick and Matt reference the the general data showing that teenagers are abandoning email in favour of eMail and other tools. Also text use is increasing face; these days it is main means of communication between my daughter and myself when I am overseas, which costs me far more money than email by the way!

Patrick also makes the vital point that corporate IT is only just starting to get to grips with the information management and legal aspects of email, now face a proliferation of channels and may (in some cases are) trying to restrict those in a desperate attempt to maintain some sort of control.

Now, I have to pack and set off on a long flight across the Andes to New Zealand by way of a ten hour stop over in Chile. This involves crossing the date line which I hate. Not only does it confuse me but I feel cheated, I will loose the whole weekend on this journey! However I will catch up on email, complete a paper, drink too many gin and tonics, see a few bad films and catch up on sleep. As part of that journey I intend to write part II of this post in which I will argue that email still has an important role to play. I will also suggest some ways in which organisations can deal with the issue (responding to Patrick’s point) and conclude that there is a need for a better legislative framework around our electronic environment; a need for both more and less freedom.

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