Monday, October 19, 2009

7 Points on “The End of the Email Era”

"The End of the Email Era", a Wall Street Journal article by Jessica Vascellaro ignited, somewhat ironically, a flurry of "have you read this?" emails in my inbox. I'm a bit late to the party of dissecting Vascellaro's piece. All of last week, I was cranking on a new version of reMail. Yet I felt I'd write about it, since I feel pretty qualified to comment on email-related topics.

WSJ's 4 Points

In case you haven't read it, here are the points that the WSJ article makes:
  1. IM is better than email because it gets you faster responses.

  2. Twitter and Facebook updates are better than email because they're informal and fun.

  3. All these updates will cause even more overload and filtering needs to improve.

  4. Facebook gives you context about people's location, mood, and current activity. You need to coordinate less than if you were using only email.

Gabor's 7 Points

Most people misread the WSJ piece as "email is dying". But email isn't dying, it's being complemented by new modes of communication. And despite Paul Graham's warning about "lists of N things", here's my list of 7 things to contribute to the social network updates vs. email debate.
  1. Twitter and Facebook updates are orthogonal to email. Looking through the last 200 tweets on my Twitter feed, I didn't find a single update that I would have sent as an email had Twitter not existed. The use cases are too different. Thus, Twitter is a parallel world to email.

    This HuffPo article puts it best:
    If you're like us, you still send text messages on the weekends, check voicemail at work, post photos to Facebook, watch viral videos on YouTube, and Tweet your favorite news.

    In other words, we haven't "killed off" our previous tools: we're actually adding, not abandoning, platforms. And when we do ditch, it's because of forces more complex than seasonal trends (or the news cycle).

  2. Email is private, Twitter is public. Twitter and Facebook can't replace email because they're public or semi-public communications channels. Direct messages in Twitter and Facebook messages are bad, low-fidelity clones of email functionality. You shouldn't use them.

  3. Your work email belongs to your employer. You can't use Facebook for work. The messages and the intellectual property you create while at work belong to your employer. If you leave the company, you shouldn't be able to take them with you.

  4. Email is about task management. The reason why your inbox is a source of stress and your Twitter feed is not is because email is a task manager. Twitter and Facebook are entertainment. Your boss wouldn't assign a task to you via a Facebook update. But if your boss sends you an email, you better read it and get that work item done.

  5. The unread messages counter. Unlike Twitter, email has an unread message counter. If it didn't have that counter, email would make you far less anxious. But it would lose its work value as a task manager.

  6. The future of email is not to become IM. Part of the value of email is that it's asynchronous: While you're getting actual work done, new messages pile up. You don't want to give everyone the chance to interrupt your work flow. You wouldn't get things done. And that's exactly the problem with turning email into IM, whether it's with push notifications or Google Wave: Yes it will get you answers instantly, but it would make everyone less productive.

  7. The lack of innovation in email is because the underlying protocols suck. If you have a great idea about how to use or display the data in Twitter, all you need to read is the Twitter API docs. If you have a great idea in email, you need to know MIME (the encoder), SMTP (the message protocol), IMAP or Exchange (the access layer), and your email client (the viewer). The email technology stack is huge, wobbly, and antiquated.

    Take IMAP: a hugely inefficient, stateful protocol with an ugly message format. State-of-the art in the late 1990s, yes, but if you were to reinvent it today, you could do a much better job.

    We need to make it easier to innovate around the mail client. We could rip out everything (maybe save for SMTP) and build a great new stack that allows fast iteration. Make it easier to move the needle in email, and the needle will move.


Philipp Schumann said...

Overall, I concur with your good points.

"If you have a great idea in email, you need to know MIME (the encoder), SMTP (the message protocol), IMAP or Exchange (the access layer), and your email client (the viewer)."

I would argue that for most "great ideas in email", you don't need in-depth knowledge of those protocols or even re-vamp them from scratch, since most of those great ideas are likely related to better user interfaces (so you'd better know your web development) or better information retrieval, association and management algorithms (so you'd better know your somwhat-AI techniques).

lghinelli said...

Only one word:
It fits every point but with steroyds

lsc said...

If you are serious about wanting something better than IMAP, you might want to check out the bikini project.

Personally, though, I'm not sure what is wrong with IMAP.

Anonymous said...

I think what's overlooked here is that, we're in a new era. The idea of "Twitter-like broadcasting" ushers in a new way of communicating that is more efficient than email especially at a corp level. There are for enterprise Twitter clones rolling out like Yammer that are going to make company communications rely less on email. It's better than email as it allows everyone to view project progress and archives project updates. Email has a place but it's not great for everything. Younger generations too already think of email as old-school.

Khuram said...

Entirely valid points Gabor and I would also like to add curation as key element in the private nature of email. Exactly because email focuses on tasks there is a need to hold on to the information we exchange through email. Your Inbox is also the place where you can store, manage, organize and search this information.

Anonymous said...

Facebook *does* have an "Unread Message" counter... it's a number that appears right next to "Inbox" whenever you have messages that have not been read.

Gabor said...

Yup, I meant to write "Twitter" or "Facebook newsfeed". Now corrected. :-)

Thanks, anonymous!