Email is still a primary method of communication, but can we make it better?
According to a Radicati report, 2.5 billion active email users were exchanging a staggering 244 billion emails a day in 2015.
But that was 2015 - what about now? Well, the number of email users projected for 2019 is 2.9 billion while Statista claims that the number of emails sent and received each day will rise from around 281 billion in 2018, to over 347 billion in 2022.
So much for the death of email at the hands of chat apps, mobile messaging and social media. What is going on?
Well, we mostly think of email as a method of exchanging messages but it’s easy to forget that many of those messages contain attachments. Sure, you can exchange documents in many ways but we use email because it is an open standard.
No matter which email software or platform you use, be it laptop, tablet or mobile, it can exchange messages with almost any other email software from any manufacturer. Imagine if you could only view an invoice, say, with the application that produced it.
You would have to own every type of accounts package for which you are likely to receive invoices.
If we were all highly organised, we might download our attachments and file them. But what’s the point? They may just as well stay on our email server as on our own computers. We search for documents in the context of the email to which they are attached.
We are using the messages to index our documents. Even if we were to download every attachment we received, we would still need a way to find them. And most of us don’t see the point when our email indexes and stores them for us.
So for most businesses, the email server has become a file server. However, email servers were never intended to be used that way.
File servers are for sharing files on high-speed networks. Email servers were designed for the then (1990s) slow public internet and where text messages, once delivered, stayed with the recipient.
File servers store files ”as is”, whereas email requires that files be converted into text - usually doubling their size. As email systems have moved to modern standards – where messages remain on the email server and can be grouped into folders – it has become practical to store attachments in situ. And store them we have, in their billions.
But if we are going to chuck email out, what are we going to replace it with? Social media is mostly worse than even email for serving up files, and there are so many variants, how could we all agree on one?
And what happens if the sender is not using the same social media/collaboration tool as the intended recipient? Or their social media host goes out of business? Most social media hosts do not use open standards.
Why do we use email?
● Open standard - no special apps needed, works on all platforms, for all users.
● Easy to use
● You can store and exchange files as well as messages
● Searchable - find documents (attachments) by the context of the sender’s message
● Safe - most often stored off-site
● Robust - email standards more than 20 years old
● Permanent legal record
● Gives user time to compose and time to respond.
The technological change that will most likely affect the deployment of email in business is not social media but the adoption of automatic speech recognition - ie automatic transcription of phone calls, rendering them searchable just like emails.
But phone calls happen in “real time” and in many cases you want time to compose your message, and time to consider your response. Email’s main drawback can be summarised as information overload.
Users receive so much irrelevant email that they can easily miss the important stuff – or they cannot find what they want. As they age, systems like Facebook fall prey to the same information overload pressures as email.
Counter-intuitively, spam or junk email is a not major cause of this. It's unlikely that more than 20% of an email user's inbox is spam. While it is true that some studies claim that junk is rising (proportionately), the majority of it - some of which we might actually want to see - can be automatically removed by a spam filter.
Given email is not going away, how are we going to deal with it? The answer is to encourage and enable users to share email instead of keeping it private. It is our experience that less than 5% of email in an average employee’s company inbox is confidential.
Sharing email can, in fact, vastly reduce the information overload burden. By sharing email in a database, it is no longer necessary to cc colleagues – who may not have read the cc mail anyway.
Users can browse and search the database any time they wish but, unlike their own email application, they can see all the relevant correspondence, not just that in their own inbox, so improving communication and collaboration.
Browsing for a specific email in the general context of a third-party company, contact or project is generally far easier than searching for something you cannot remember enough about to make it unique – for example, the word “meeting”.
Even though there is potentially much more data than in your own inbox, it is much easier to find what you are looking for.
Also, because the messages have been transferred to an off-site database which is optimised for searching and browsing, users no longer need to worry about deleting messages that are not immediately relevant, and can concentrate just on those that are.
Last but not least, only one copy of the message is stored, no matter how many recipients there are, meaning a reduction in costly storage requirements.
So successful can this be that it becomes a major benefit to convert other types of “message” including telephone conversations or tweets into the message currency.
Once relevant messages and phone calls involving colleagues are seen together, the bigger picture soon become clear The use of speech recognition and voice recognition can enhance this enormously, allowing phone calls to be searched for keywords, and callers to be identified from their voices
And the real beauty of this is that for employees, nothing changes. No special new applications for workstation or mobile are required, so nothing new to learn.
Just a browser-based application that staff go to whenever they need to find something. The technology to do that is already here.
As long as there are no competing open standards and as long as organisations need to connect with one another, email is here to stay.
Dr John Yardley is managing director of Threads Software.
Email Is Dead - Long Live Email