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As email passes 40, is a midlife crisis in the cards?

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A few weeks ago, electronic mail, or email as it’s now affectionately known, hit the respectable age of 40. When Ray Tomlinson, a young computer engineer, sent the first email in 1971, he could only have guessed how it would impact the way we communicate in both our business and personal lives.

Email has transformed the way people shop, bank, communicate with family members and do business. Now an essential tool for approximately one billion mobile workers across the globe, email continues to dominate the way in which we communicate.

Four decades since the first message – believed to be “QWERTYUIOP” – email seems to be going strong. But is it about to hit a midlife crisis? With web workers now using more sophisticated collaborative apps and social business tools to communicate and share information, are we going to see email’s reign come to an end?

Email is a great communication tool. You can get in touch with business colleagues, family and friends at the touch of a button. Gone are the days of waiting by the front door for a letter from uncles and aunties across the globe, or sitting by a fax machine waiting for that signed document to come back from a client’s legal team. However, email isn’t a collaboration tool. Anyone who has tried to collate feedback from numerous colleagues on a document over email knows how painful the process can be. No one seems to remember which version the team is working on and there is always that one person who sends over some (supposedly) final amendments overnight. Hours can be wasted waiting for emails to go back and forth, searching through inboxes for missing documents, and putting large files onto CDs, USB sticks or FTP servers due to file size restrictions.

It is little wonder then that web workers across the globe are turning to the likes of Dropbox for storing and sharing files. Store your files on one computer, and they’ll automatically appear on your other computers with Dropbox installed. Simple. Indeed, Apple (s aapl) has finally joined the party and realized that emailing photos from your phone was so 2010 — its forthcoming iCloud service will provide a far smarter way to move your content between devices. Evernote is another popular tool with remote workers, enabling you to quickly capture anything. Whether it’s a photo, a screenshot or a web site, whatever you capture is stored, processed and made searchable. And, of course, there’s Huddle. Being cloud-based, Huddle enables you to manage your projects, files and people on any device, from any location.

With social networks making it so easy to stay in touch and share information with people in their personal lives, the demand for such simplicity in the workplace has increased. Take Facebook, for example: You can message your friends, share your photos and videos (and every other aspect of your life should you so wish), and co-ordinate events from wherever you are. With more than 500 million active Facebook users spending 700 billion minutes per month on the site, and more than 200 million people tweeting, email’s grip on our personal lives may well be coming to an end.

For business, however, it’s a different matter. Yes, there are tools being used to make our working lives easier, but removing email from the workplace completely will require more than just introducing intuitive, easy-to-use tools in the office. It requires a change in habit. Email is deeply entrenched in our daily working lives and moving to other tools will require a culture shift. Any new tools and services need to be integrated into processes from the outset of a project / program / campaign so that people become accustomed to using an alternative tool. And this is before you start the mammoth task of introducing client and partner companies to your amazing new tool. While email may not dominate workplace communication in another 40 years, there’s life in it yet!

Andy McLoughlin, Co-founder and EVP Strategy at Huddle, can be reached on Twitter @Bandrew.

Photo courtesy Flickr user

8 Responses to “As email passes 40, is a midlife crisis in the cards?”

  1. Email is the bane of my working life. It has made people’s expectations of a reply much more demanding and has effectively ensured that whenever you have a day off, you pay for it twenty-fold on your return to the office.

    Sure, the majority of this is mostly down to misuse of email in general, but still, it’s a devil in a not-so-very-good disguise.

  2. Email in business is not going anywhere and trying to introduce change to deeply entrenched habits across disparate, flash-in the pan “productivity” apps will only hurt productivity. The beauty of email is its ubiquity- everyone knows it and understands it. In the era of APIs, we can actually finally start accessing all the richness contained in email and start building apps outside of it that pull in this data with no need for habitual change for end users. These apps will immediately and instantly improve productivity as they frame all of this email data in an easy to access, contextualized interface. Look at email integration with CRM – as soon as a CRM is populated with files, communications, and data that are all locked in email, it becomes immediately valuable to an organization. Asking end users to BCC or forward to an obscure address is erroneous. Integrating their inboxes with CRM through an email api like Context.IO allows this integration to happen seamlessly behind the scenes. Everyone wins. Let’s start leveraging APIs that unlock email to outside productivity apps and something “old” will become new again. Email’s not going anywhere, but it’s data should be!

  3. I had really hoped to see a faster and higher adoption rate of Google wave. That is the future of web based communication/collaboration technology. Sadly Google was ,as they often are, too far ahead of their time.

  4. jahmaicherry

    Lest we forget that every new service that comes up to compete with or supplement email, requires an email address to sign up. Until authorization services like OAuth or OpenID become more mainstream it is unlikely for email to take a back seat to the up and comers.