Phillip Smith

Five reasons why e-mail still rules the roost

So, I'm going to call bullshit on the recent Wall Street Journal article titled "Why Email No Longer Rules...". The article's title is striving to be sensational -- and I guess it worked, as I surfed over to check it out -- but, from that point on, it falls flat and doesn't manage to land one good argument in favour of the idea that e-mail is going away any time soon. 

Here are the main points the author tries to make:

  • New ways of communicating -- always-on, connected, real-time ways -- are faster and "more fun" than e-mail.

  • According to some research by Nielsen Co, more people are using social network sites than e-mail. (Though, I don't see how that is possible, given that most -- if not all -- social network sites require that you supply an e-mail address to sign up.)

  • In the "land of the stream" (social networks), there are (or will be) more sophisticated filtering available to help manage the information flow. 

Frankly, I think all three points are bunk. Here are five reasons why e-mail is still the king of Internet applications:

  1. You can own your e-mail entirely: Unlike Facebook and Twitter (and other similar social messaging platforms), which impose sometimes Draconian restrictions on how you can use your own data, the standards for e-mail are openly available and most of the parts of the e-mail "stack" (the various bits that make e-mail work) are freely available for you to use. If you're not interested in setting up your own e-mail infrastructure, you're in luck: it's usually included in even the most inexpensive Web hosting services. Once you've got e-mail at your own domain name, you own your data and can do with it what you like. In contrast, try to download your Facebook messages and see how far you get.

  2. E-mail is immanently hackable: Thanks to the open standards an implementations mentioned above, e-mail is quite easy to "hack" on -- that is, it's easy to build functionality on top of the e-mail you know and love today. Many popular Web services allow you post items to them via e-mail (think sending a message to a special address to post a Flickr photo, or create a new Google Calendar entry), that's just one simple example of  e-mail's inherent "hackability."  

  3. E-mail is incredibly flexible: Never has there been a tool used for so many purposes, in so many different ways (sure, not all of them were a good fit, but at least people tried!). For example, my personal e-mail is pre-filtered by Google's Postini service before it even reaches my inbox, then -- once it reaches my mail server -- the messages are filtered again and automatically filed in the appropriate folders, or sent to the right places. Once in my inbox, they're again categorized using tagging, smart lists, and so on. With a click, just the messages I need to see at that moment are brought into view. If you care about productivity, there is no match for e-mail.

  4. E-mail is incredibly portable, resilient, and easy to back up: E-mail goes with me, forever. I've had the same e-mail address for a long time now, and I've moved my e-mail across servers several times along the way. Each time, the move was trivial (thanks again to those open standards) and it's also easy to back up my messages on a regular basis. Finally, the e-mail protocol has a good amount of resilience built in: if you e-mail me when my mail server is unavailable for some reason, other mail servers on the Internet will hold the message and deliver it later. In contrast, try contacting your friend on Twitter when Twitter is offline. 

  5. E-mail works equally well when you're working offline: Speaking of offline... there is no replacement in my mind for systems that are fully-functional when you are offline. When I hit the road (or the sky), I just close my laptop and get going -- knowing full well that I can read, respond, and manage my e-mail while offline. When I'm back online, queued messages are sent and everything "Just Works(tm)." That's a darn nice feeling. 

The most insightful comment in the WSJ article is from Jeff Teper, Vice President of Microsoft Corp.'s SharePoint division, he says:

"People were very dependent on email. They overused it."  "Now, people can use the right tool for the right task."

Given how often I still receive draft documents via e-mail, I suspect that this vision of "right tool for the right task" is way off. However, Daniel Tenner's article "What problems does Google Wave solve?" starts to point toward some of the questions that need to be considered to make the shift.

And let's not forget that e-mail is by no means an ignored standard. As evidence, just look at the work that the smart folks at the Mozilla Messaging team are doing: exploring messaging platform convergence and new ways of working with messages. It's only a matter of time before we see better, innovative, and unified interfaces to all of the various information streams that we're inundated with.

However, the key to long-term viability of almost any platform is going to be how open and hackable it is. E-mail is still the clear winner here, and that's why it will remain The Champ. 


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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