Will Email Ever Die ? Someday...

Yesterday Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched what he calls a "modern messaging system" to handle the convergence of different kinds of messages and bring them together under one social umbrella. He did not say anything like the speculative 'email killer' for the service but it did approach the 'next big thing' type of announcement. After reading about the service and contemplating the worth of a personal facebook.com email address (low) I considered the poor old email system.

Why Email Just Won’t Die

Worldwide email volume. Data from Radicati Group. Source: Gigaom

Over the years, various commentators have proclaimed the death of email, yet its usage continues to grow year-on-year. While many of email’s potential challengers (including instant messaging, IRC, social networks, microblogging, VoIP, SMS and collaboration software) have also flourished, none of them have killed email off, or even taken its crown. Even with the influx of a huge amount of spam that users have had to deal with, email stubbornly refuses to go away. In my eyes email will be tough to replace for the following reasons:

  • It’s universal. Just about everyone who’s online has an email account. Email works internationally and across cultures.
  • It’s simple. You don’t need to explain to anyone how to send you a file using email. The old post office analogy is effective and quite user friendly.
  • It’s asynchronous. Unlike IM, where both parties need to be online for it to work, emails are stored until the receiver is able to deal with them.
  • It has few constraints. Unlike some other communication tools, email enables you to send very rich messages: you can simultaneously email a bunch of people, include as much information as you like, use HTML to add formatting, and easily attach supporting documentation or files.
  • It’s controllable. Individuals and businesses can run their own email servers. You don’t need to rely on a third party to provide your messaging service.

In short, while some people don’t like using it, email is just too useful to be killed off.

The Future of Email

Email’s been around for a long time (in internet terms ancient), first appearing around 1965 and becoming popular in the ’90s. And while it is here to stay, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved upon. In fact, I beg for it to be improved. The basic messaging format probably won’t change significantly (it can’t, without risking breaking one of email’s primary advantages: its universality), there are plenty of ways to build on top of email and make it more useful. Companies like Xobni and Webyog (with its MailBrowser plugin) have made tools that can help users to search and organize their email, while Gmail’s Priority Inbox feature helps users to filter out their most important messages.

Tools for helping users to sift through their inboxes are just the tip of the iceberg.  Due to the sheer amount of communication that goes on via email, there’s a huge amount of useful data that’s locked away in many people’s inboxes. Companies like Gist and Rapportive provide interesting tools that help users analyse this data: find out more about their contacts, for example, or even discover who their most valuable contacts are.

While email itself won’t change, the tools we use for working with email will get much more sophisticated and powerful. The sort of technology that companies like Gist are working on is currently only available via plugins and add-ons, but you can bet that it won’t be long before similar functionality is baked into clients like Outlook and Gmail, and available to all.

That my 2 cents, what do you think the future of email will be ?