Why Email Won’t Die

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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