If the rumors are to be believed, Facebook is about to unveil a new email service. It might just be part of the ongoing war between Facebook and Google, but what’s interesting about it is it will show how much potential there is in email still.

Worldwide email volume. Data from Radicati Group.

It looks like Facebook’s moving into the email space. If the rumors are to be believed, on Monday Facebook will unveil a new email service, code-named Project Titan. This potential “Gmail killer” might just be part of the ongoing war between Facebook and Google, but what I find interesting about it is that it shows how much potential there still is in email as a communication tool. Email is not dead; far from it, if Facebook is investing its resources into building out a new email service.

Why Email Just Won’t Die

Worldwide email volume. Data from Radicati Group.

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.

I believe that there are a number of reasons why email is still just as popular as ever, which I outlined in an article for GigaOM Pro (subscription required), Email: The Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated:

  • 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.
  • 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. If Facebook — whose COO Sheryl Sandberg famously declared earlier this year that email was going to “go away” — really is about to launch an email service, it will prove just how sprightly email really is.

The Future of Email

Email’s been around for an awfully long time, 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. 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 start, though. 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 have released tools that help users do interesting stuff with that 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.

What do you think lies in email’s future?

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  1. eMail remains and will remain a vital tool. Do you know of one university, particularly the high end ones, who do not have students and faculty all linked together within their own eMail system? One business? It’s institutionalized and will not go away (perhaps, not in our lifetimes).

    To communicate with the rest of the World, across time zones, it is essential (too many people in the States tend to only think locally, as if everyone is just a time zone or two away).

    And, eMail to mobile is going to expand it’s use, not diminish it.

    Narrative and cognitive discourse require more than 140 characters of dumbed-down drivel.

    So, it’s here. Now, FB wants “in” (strange they didn’t do this years ago). The problem is, people all have their eMail addresses and aren’t going to change overnight. Plus, even High School students are learning not to trust FB with too much personal data. With two teenagers in the house, they’ll stick with Gmail/Gvoice/Gtalk as their core communication tools; with FB serving as the glitzy Forum it always has been.

  2. The US Postal Service is losing money faster every quarter, due primarily to decline in 1st class mailings. The only reason I use it now is to send a check. It’s relatively secure, unlike email. If that nut can be cracked, the USPS is doomed. Who writes paper letters for personal use anymore? Plus they keep increasing rates.

  3. Another interesting post about email winning against collaboration software: http://distractedenterprise.com/?p=930

    Personnally, my bet is the future of email is making it easily embeddable in other apps: http://dokdok.com/email-api

  4. Good points, email is not going anywhere, just like there are still fax machines everywhere… I think real time is not always better, I didn’t like wave for exactly how real time it was therefore email will always suit that need. Biggest problem with email is all the information that is lost in there or the problems it creates when trying to collaborate (what? you weren’t copied on that email? ok let me forward it to you…) – proper searching, like gmail has, saves me hours a week

    1. thankfully, I think fax machines are beginning to be phased out :) But I agree that real-time, synchronous communication isn’t always the best option. Email just works.

  5. Just follow the ecommerce world and find out how important email is to these companies. The moment students graduate into the business world, email is the staple. Can you imagine asking vital business questions on a colleague’s FB wall? It’s also a vital audit trail for critical communications. As a developer, you just have to look at the spike in visitors to a site when an email goes out to see how powerful it is.

  6. I agree email is a critical factor in online communication. What I don’t agree on is what it is used to transport. When you email a message or file to someone, that information hits several servers on the way to its final destination where it is stored, permanently, if the user(s) doesn’t (don’t) delete that email and purge it from their trash and wipe their hard drive.
    We have created threadthat.com (TT) to address the issue of control over shared content. With TT, what you share online is transmitted via SSL and is stored encrypted. Many sites use SSL to protect your data during transmission, but fewer follow through and encrypt your content so that it is safe from unauthorized access by unethical hackers (yes, there are ethical hackers).
    If you communicate sensitive information via TT, that information is never sent via email. The only use of email is to notify recipients that you have given them access to that information via a thread or that some activity has occurred on a thread they have access to. Sounds like a Facebook notification right? The difference is, you posts and uploaded files are encrypted on the server where they are stored. Not only that, but you control the passkeys used to encrypt that information, which prevents the server admins from peeking at your data. That should be the norm, but it’s not there yet, unless you use TT or one of its competitors.

  7. Scott Easterday Sunday, November 14, 2010

    I agree E-Mail is going to be staying around for a while. The problem I have with email it is an old system. There are a lot of things I wish it could do. Google Wave gave us a taste of what we could possible, although it wasn’t open. To really replace email though there needs to be a new open standard. Nothing has caught on because I guess email is sufficient enough to do everything that someone needs to do. Although it seems outdated to me, it really is here to stay.

    1. Yep, some kind of open “email 2.0″ standard could work, particularly if it was widely supported. It would probably be difficult to get traction for it, though, given that email seems to be good enough for most people.

  8. Good article and stats. Email is and will be the most popular app. Agreed. But, collaboration with teams just doesn’t work over email. Hence, apps like http://www.deskaway.com (disclosure: we built it), let people use email to communicate but give them an option to thread the knowledge in a central location for later use.

  9. Facebook Launches All-in-One “Social Inbox”: Tech News « Monday, November 15, 2010

    [...] their main form of communications, particularly with friends (although email is far from dying, as Simon noted in a post). And when they are looking for something to move to, he suggested, Facebook’s unified social [...]

  10. The real question is: Why won’t FAX die?!

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