What would a post-e-mail world look like?
E-mail may be on the decline, but its archival abilities can't be matched by any current contender
As headlines seem to almost gleefully declare the death of e-mail, it may be worth taking a pause and asking the most obvious follow-up question:
What would a post-e-mail world look like?
For all of the declarations on the demise of e-mail, not much attention has been given to how communications would function in such a world.
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It is a demonstrable fact that e-mail use is plummeting amongst younger people -- among 18-24 year olds, the drop may be as large as 34 percent -- in favor of other electronic means of getting the message out, such as microblogging, instant messaging, and social network communications.
For many pundits, it has been easy to look at stats like these and presume that as these college-age social media mavens roll into the work force, their habits will lead to a corresponding reduction in e-mail use within the corporate ecosystem.
But it's not just the rise of social media that's creating the buzz about e-mail's impending doom.
"Possibly part of the story can be around the death of e-mail as a method of sharing," said Matt Richards, VP Products at ownCloud, a storage service start up. "It used to be you shared everything over e-mail inside a company. Then came a proliferation of data, new file types, file size limitations, audit trails, auto-delete policies, new devices, difficulty finding files later, retention policies, and file type limitations -- these all made e-mail a clunky way to simply share files with friends and coworkers.
"Enter file sync and share," Richards added, which offers a clear alternative to the file-sharing use of e-mail. But even that has issues: "Problem is, IT needs the same sort of control they had with e-mail in this new era, and is struggling to find it," Richards said.
Still, there are compelling marquee examples of companies like Atos, an IT services company with about 75,000 employees that hopes to completely phase out internal e-mail by the summer of 2013. The company is making the switch by relying on IM-based communications and wiki pages for messaging and file sharing.
As an IT services company, Atos may be uniquely positioned to implement a pilot program such as this. But for companies that are less technically prepared, is such an extreme solution even viable?
Jürgen Geck, CTO of Open-Xchange, which specializes in communications and collaboration tools, has his doubts. For Geck, many of the alternative solutions to e-mail -- Twitter, Facebook, Google Docs -- have their advantages, but also some glaring deficiencies.
To see the problems with e-mail alternatives, Geck explained, it's important to define all of the functionality that e-mail currently provides: the messaging has to be robust and relatively unlimited, secure, and able to document conversations and message threads completely. In Geck's opinion, these are functions that simply must be provided by any e-mail replacement, and currently no one service will provide them. Twitter's character limitations prevents robust communications, and Facebook and Google offer businesses much poorer security for exchanging business documents. And no alternative provides complete and unalterable archival capabilities.
"Neither Facebook nor Twitter will replace e-mail," Geck said. "They bring more channels to users already sick of staring at noise for too long."
Geck looks at the so-called demise of e-mail with a large amount of skepticism.
"I personally feel that e-mail will not go away," he emphasized.
It would be easy to take Geck's declaration with a grain of salt -- after all, he works for a company that specializes in the delivery of e-mail messages. But he makes it clear that he's not a luddite trying to protect his own interests. Geck sees huge changes on the horizon -- changes that will not replace e-mail, but perhaps irrevocably alter it to something we'd barely recognize.
For Geck, e-mail will probably not exist as a separate messaging channel. "The future will be in aggregation and smart helpers to sift through unwanted content more efficiently," he stated. As an example of the type of service he foresees, Geck highlighted Google Wave, the now-defunct unified messaging and collaboration platform launched by the search giant and later discontinued. While Wave exists now as an Apache Software Foundation incubator project, Geck sees elements within it that presage the type of service/messaging platform that could be the next-generation messaging tool.
Primarily, Wave's unified aggregation of messaging via chat, e-mail, and document sharing is a good example of the kind of service Geck envisions. It did have its problems, he points out -- users had too many permissions to edit past messages in a given stream, for one thing, thus damaging the tool's ability to create true archives. But Wave had quite a few things going for it. It is no accident, surely, that many of the multi-service elements found in the standalone Wave service are now found within other Google services (Google Talk within Gmail, or Video Hangouts within Google Plus, for instance).
Geck is also looking at one Web solution that might tie all of these communications channels together into one meta-channel.
"There is some silver lining on the horizon in the gestalt of Schema.org," Geck said. Schema.org is an initiative from Google, Bing, and Yahoo, launched in 2011 "to create and support a common set of schemas for structured data markup on Web pages. Schema.org aims to be a one-stop resource for Webmasters looking to add markup to their pages to help search engines better understand their sites," according to the service's announcement.
Technology designed to make Web pages easier to search may seem like a bit of reach to apply to a communications channel, but Geck believes that working towards a unifying structured data scheme for Web pages will ultimately be of use for communications as well. If communication services are ultimately to be hosted on the Web, then it stands to reason that definitions of important data, such as the identity of messaging service users, will also be unified.
Schema.org can provide this capability, Geck emphasized, adding that it will accomplish this in a far more standardized way than the XML-oriented Semantic Web proposed by the W3C, which Geck feels is not yet mature enough to be implemented as Schema.org's plan.
Geck's skepticism of an XML-based solution is apparent; XML can be defined with many variations: "HTML should not be a second-class citizen when it comes to integration of [messaging] services. If it is good enough for our users, it should be good enough for service integration. Because content not relevant for users is not relevant at all."
Under a structured-data Web, aggregating messaging clients would be able to determine who was whom on whatever (Web-based) communications channel they used. Thus, if you wanted to send a message to Brian Proffitt, Geck said, you would just send a message to his identity and let the client determine which communication channel(s) to use.
E-mail, in Geck's vision, would not go away, but rather become a much more transparent communications channel that would be one among many possible ways to connect with a person and share documents.
The transition will be disruptive to be sure, but ultimately not fatal to e-mail, which will remain a key component of business communications for some time to come.
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