Why New Solutions Fail to Oust Email in Business Communication

Email has been the backbone of business communication since the 1980s. When it was first introduced it changed the way people worked, driving the shift from physical letters typed by secretaries to self-typed messages, accelerating the pace of business and enabling more remote collaboration.

Since then technology ha advanced. Thanks to better hardware, better software and faster networks we now have many alternatives that address some of the well-known limitations of email, yet email is still for most people the standard way to contact a company or organization.

For years people like me have taught businesses how to use alternatives to reduce the burden of email and shown people simple techniques to make email more effective (See, for example Three Timesaving Tips for Email). Some people go even further, like Atos CEO Thierry Breton, who famously banned internal email to improve productivity -- bosses worry about social media but email is one of the main time wasters in modern business. Even Breton, though, stopped short of banning external email for communication between Atos and other organizations.

Why have all the newer solutions consistently failed to oust email as the standard for business communication?  The answer lies in the word standard. Email is clunky, inefficient, insecure and much worse, but it is entirely based on standards and interoperability. You can send an email message from any client running on any hardware through any network and be pretty sure it can be read at the other end. The entire process is defined by open standards like the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, various character sets and HTML. There are no proprietary technologies and nobody "owns" the email network. It won't become a ghost town like Myspace, or just disappear, like Google Wave.

Compare this with the walled gardens of social media.. I can contact anyone I want through Facebook but only if they have a Facebook account. There is no interchange protocol that lets me send a message from Facebook to Google+ or anywhere else. Google+ does address this issue in a way, offering the possibility of sharing with someone who has no account by sending an email, but the goal of this is clearly to get more people to open Google+ accounts. Even if everyone in the world had an account on a single platform no company or organization could willingly commit to using a proprietary system because of issues of ownership and security.

To oust email completely we would need to have a new standard for interoperability that allows people to communicate between platforms, but this is clearly in conflict with the apparent aim of the major players in dominating communication with their own private solution -- a completely unrealistic goal in any case for technological, legal and political reasons.

Will someone finally develop an interoperable solution, a standard protocol that allows everyone to talk to everyone?  Will the leading companies get together and agree on a standard or will a startup launch a standard so popular that they are compelled to adopt it? Or will email have to  persist for another 40 years?  History has shown that obsolete technologies can outlive their usefulness simply because it is too difficult to get everyone to agree on the replacement -- like the internal combustion engine. Let's hope we don't have to add email to this list, too.


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