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Every year, the same conversation takes place: Will some new technology kill traditional email? Email has survived many deaths. First, it was the emergence of faxes and then it was the Web. Instant messaging, chat rooms and forums soon followed. Then came text messaging and social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook.
Today, a new breed of email killers exists, with services such as Slack and Yammer battling for a share of the hours that people spend communicating with colleagues and friends online. Each has been hailed as an email replacement, yet email survives.
Furthermore, email is integral to how many competing services work -- requiring email addresses for signup and verification of a new account, password recovery, as well as email notifications for alerts, reports, or to market new features to customers.
Arguably, email has two markets to serve: consumers and businesses. As time passes, consumer trends will swing away from email to social media like Facebook and then back to email again -- and finally, away to something new. Ultimately, even the most anti-email person often needs to maintain at least one email address to sign up to certain services.
For consumers, at least, many services have signup options that bypass email, such as logging in via Facebook or LinkedIn. However, the identity provider -- including Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter --also requires an email address. Some services enable users to sign up with a mobile phone number instead of email, but mobile phone numbers have ownership issues that email, namely personal email, does not.
Businesses are a different beast. In recent years, there have been some high profile cases of companies banning email entirely. The usual reason is that email has a perceived negative effect on productivity. Analysts routinely claim that "dealing with email" takes anywhere from 30% to 80% of an employee's productive time, citing extreme stories of employees returning from vacation to find 10,000 unread items in their mailboxes.
Often, problems are from email use more than email itself. Being on too many distribution lists and a lack of usable document management systems will easily result in a high volume of email messages and a mess of file attachments.
Why you'll miss email when it's gone
But what do those companies sacrifice when they try to achieve an email-free, highly productive nirvana? Some useful capabilities of email are lost when a ban is in place.
Ubiquity. Email is simple to use, widely available, low cost -- or free for some services -- and works with an enormous variety of applications and devices. Nearly everyone has email -- staff, suppliers and customers. In contrast, emerging competing technologies of email have relatively fewer users --with some exceptions like Facebook -- and vary in popularity between different geographic regions. It's one thing to ban email for staff, but telling customers they can't reach you via email is a different story. This makes it difficult for a business to abandon email.
Email can also be near real-time, yet perfectly suitable for communicating across distributed time zones. This is more convenient that a real-time system, or any stream-based platform in which updated or newer content push older messages out of view.
Security and compliance. Modern email systems have features that many emerging platforms simply do not include. Security and compliance are two in particular that many businesses pay a lot of attention to in the current cybersecurity climate. When choosing any service for corporate data, businesses need to know:
- Who can access corporate data;
- Where corporate data is stored;
- How corporate data is protected in transit, and at rest, by measures such as encryption;
- How data is backed up, how it can be recovered, and for how long; and
- Whether communications can be monitored and filtered for profanity or sensitive data.
Modern email systems are flexible enough to either meet customer requirements directly or integrate with third-party products to fill the gap. For example, a business that requires that data is stored within a particular country and can sign up for a Microsoft Office 365 tenant in that country or host an Exchange Server in a data center in that country to meet that requirement. However, many non-email platforms are hosted in U.S.-based data centers only and offer no on-premises options.
There is no doubt that email can be problematic in businesses, particularly in large enterprises. The sheer volume of email messages, sprawling distribution lists and the unsuitability of using email to transfer and collaborate on documents, are real issues. But platforms such as Exchange Server and Office 365 are evolving their email capabilities to solve those problems. For example, OneDrive for Business doesn't attach documents to email messages and instead stores them centrally in the cloud -- where all end users can see the latest version at any time. In addition, Office 365 Groups gives teams a way to collaborate and communicate around specific topics or projects.
For the foreseeable future, email isn't going anywhere. Complementary services such as instant messaging and enterprise social networks have their place, but they won't replace email in businesses any time soon.
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Paul Cunningham asks:
Which email alternatives do you think could replace email, if any?
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