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October 20, 2006

Why email as we know it is over

Yeah yeah, sorry for the second use of a lame title in as many weeks.

A few days ago I posted about how I see blogging, particularly for the readers of blogs, as changing, from a vertical process (read all posts from source X) to a horizontal process (read posts about subject Y).

I've also been thinking about how we communicate one on one on the 'net of late. Now old friend and new colleague Dave Shea has posted a (near) obituary for email, I thought the time for publishing my thoughts appropriate.

A couple of months back I was speaking with someone who runs a travel/technology conference that I spoke at. He was lamenting that he just couldn't know which emails had gone to their recipients (he runs a large mailing list associated with the conference), and which hadn't. He was getting all kinds of bounce backs, people complaining that they hadn't received emails with things like special pricing and offers, and so on.

My response to him? "Get used to it". Harsh, (I didn't express it quite like that), but realistic. I've run large and small mailing lists for years, using all kinds of technology. This has always been a problem, but with the current proliferation of techniques for dealing with spam (at the relay, server, application, operating system, and just about everywhere in between) I think the day when we can count on an email to someone we have conversed with via email for years being guaranteed to arrive in their inbox are over. Which as Dave observes means that "email is a dead medium".

For one to many style communications, email/mailing lists is being replaced by RSS based subscription. With RSS in IE7 bringing simple RSS subscription to the masses, I think the days of mailing lists as meaningful mechanisms of communication are pretty much at an end.

But as Dave observes, we can't even rely on email to deliver messages to people who have authorized us explicitly to email them, or with whom we may have been communicating for a long time.

What does that leave us with?

I was very late to using chat, really only using it extensively in the last 18 months to two years. I am a surprisingly early adopter in some areas (CSS, semantic HTML, microformats) and a very late adopter in others, chat being one.
But chat has in that period probably replaced over half of the business emails (probably well over half in fact) I send. Couple this with the rise of collaboration style applications like Basecamp (and a million others), where RSS is the primary notification mechanism, and I suspect that email for me will be a rarely used, low priority means of communicating in less than 2 years time.

All media and technologies have their rise and their fall. Ironically, it is one of the real strengths of email (it's simple openness) which will ultimately prove its undoing - because the cost of abusing the technology is so low that it is worth doing. Spam literally is a cancer or a virus, which is slowly but surely killing its host, email.

So f*ck you spammers.

And RIP email. You changed the world.

October 20, 2006 | Permalink


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Tend to agree but...

For the tech user, I agree Email is dying. For the average business user. No, what do they replace it with IM, RSS. All of our clients are not in the tech market space, we deal with them daily via email, for us its the primary contact method. IM is no good talking to clients, half of them don't trust or understand it, or they will not answer, just like you or me they will not answer an IM when they are busy. RSS well its only one way. Good for mailing lists ...maybe. So for the average punter, email with spam is still out there.

The solution to replace email. What we need is medium that you can use to make person contact, when you want and reply when you want.

RSS well good but to really use it like an email list I have reservations. Look at the busy lists, 200-300 posts a day. To the quiet ones 10-20 a day. You would have to set up the feed based of a non-visible forums type system, that allows postings back from a client.. Hang on.. isn't this like (the now seedy side of the net) ... newsgroups revisited...

I just don't see IE7 cutting it if all the mailing lists I subscribe to were RSS feeds. What you need is the RSS feeds going into Outlook (not that I use it) or some desktop messaging client. It has to be simple easy to use.

IM / chat I adopted this very early on used it a lot with subbies, staff and contacts. But over time I found people tended not want to hand out their IM details etc. Yeap they will hand out email, phone etc, but not IM. Go figure.. I know in the US this is different. Maybe its a generational thing.. I don't know. So I stopped using IM. Only recently I have gone back..

I stopped using IRC years ago when the nasties arrived.

Is email dying, yes.. are people fighting to keep using it, yes.

Posted by: Tuna | Oct 20, 2006 12:31:14 PM

I wonder if whitelisting might extend its life. Business really does rely on email; unless of course we're going to go back to the [insert value judgement] old days of bike couriers :)

IM is not really as accepted as email; most companies let it happen but very few formally support or require employees to use IM (at least AFAIK). I wonder if the transient nature of chat is the thing that puts business off using it more. Producing a chat log somehow has less 'authority' than producing a copy of an email. Never mind that either one can be faked in two minutes with a text editor ;)

Posted by: Ben Buchanan | Oct 20, 2006 2:22:38 PM

"the cost of abusing the technology is so low that it is worth doing"

Could email move to a paid model?

If I pay 1 cent per email sent, I'd be paying maybe 20 cents a day on average. A spammer sending a million emails would have to pay ... umm, ahh, carry the two ... a million cents.

Yes, it requires more administration and regulation and moving further away from the ham-radio anyone-can-do-it model, but this is business.

I manage mailouts of 10,000+ for a client and they'd happily pay $100 a time. Well, not happily, but they'd pay it.

Posted by: Ricky | Oct 21, 2006 12:18:45 AM

Charging 1c per e-mail might sound cheap for a typical user, sending maybe 20-30 messages a day, if that. It works for SMS, costing from 10-25c per message in Australia.

But who pays when I post to a mailing list (e.g. WSG, CSS-D, etc.) with 4,000 subscribers? I'm certainly not going to pay $40 per message and the mailing list provider wouldn't be able to support it, even for relatively low volume lists.

Also, who do you think will pay when some poor, unsuspecting user's computer gets infected with a virus or worm of some kind, set up to send out spam using the user's account?

The major winners from such a system will be the ISPs and the major losers will be the users. Spammers will undoubtedly find their way around it and still make a profit.

If you think about it, spammers have already found a way to abuse SMS for their financial advantage, with many reports of cases requiring the user to pay premium rates for receiving messages they didn't even request. You typically get subscribed to such services when you purchase something like a ring tone, or, in some cases, buy a new phone and get given a recycled phone number that's already subscribed to such things.

I have no doubt, spammers would find a way to do that with e-mail if it moved to a paid model, so it just wouldn't work.

Posted by: Lachlan Hunt | Oct 21, 2006 3:01:48 AM

Sorry to burst your bubble, but last time I checked spam *has* already move onto chat. Channels like MSN and Yahoo! have random bots requesting to add them as friends/users. Also, its quite well known that trojan chats virii may also propagate through MSN. I don't for a moment think its safe to chat forever.

I think as long as the communication medium is reliant on simplicity, openness and accessibility (for the majority of users anyway), the door is always open for abuse to spammers and other online plagues.

Heck, when was the last time you got a telemarketer annoying you at dinner time?

Posted by: Benson Low | Oct 23, 2006 10:10:58 AM

I use a service called didtheyreadit, it works like this: e-mails that you send are automatically and invisibly tracked. The instant the recipient opens your message, then didtheyreadit automatically notifies you.
It works pretty well for me.

Posted by: milo | Oct 29, 2006 7:00:54 PM