Alex Iskold has a good write up on the competition e-mail is facing from broadcasting tools like blogs and twitter, discussion tools like forums and wiki’s, or business tools like Todo, CRM. He asks himself is E-mail in danger? He ends with the conclusion:
Email has been the blockbuster and the Internet killer app for the past few decades, but it doesn’t have a monopoly. New more contextual ways to communicate are emerging and slicing pieces of the email pie, particularly in the consumer market.
We’re likely to see a consumer shift from email towards more compact forms of communication, but in the enterprise the email hold is strong and unlikely to be replaced any time soon.
I’ve written a few times about the concept of having e-mail become a center for social networking. While this may sound a bit weird (e-mail is old-school), there are arguments in favor of this. If we forget about technology, servers, clients etc, then one of the most important values of e-mail is that it contains our central address book. It is easy in use, and a whole lot of people are using it.
The younger generation is obviously starting to use Facebook and other platforms as messaging platforms (although they still need e-mail to sign up 😉 ). But that isn’t just because Facebook provides better messaging capabilities. In my opinion for too long the concept of e-mail hasn’t changed. When e-mail became the most important messaging method it also developed some serious problems that were never fixed. Just think about the client-server model, SPAM, the inability to connect with people you don’t know the e-mail address of, the urgency and pressure to respond to messages etc. etc.
Social networks and other interaction forms gave us a way out. It provided new ways of interaction and didn’t have these issues e-mail couldn’t resolve. We now have profiles, as many friends as we want, broadcasting tools, subscription tools to be automatically updated with news from friends, easy sharing of any type of content (not just text), web based.
Does that mean e-mail is dead? No, I don’t think so. It’s death is being proclaimed every once in a while in the blogosphere but e-mail is still the most widely used messaging system on this planet. Alex Iskold is right though, it faces tough competition from a whole lot of directions. E-mail can still reclaim it’s place as a messaging mechanism within the entire suite of possibilities, but it needs innovation.
Google has recognised this already and has been working on many improvements on Gmail. Even though Gmail seems nearly spam free, it is web based, it supports threaded conversations, it still lacks features that have become “basic” in online interaction. I wrote a post about this almost a year ago called “Dear Yahoo, Microsoft and Google e-mail, forget about Facebook, start innovating!” I proposed 9 improvements (there are many more). Some of them have been taken care of, and some of them haven’t:
- Focus on interaction, not on user profiles. My profile is my interaction with others. I don’t care about pimped up profiles that do not match reality, I care about interacting with my family, friends, co-workers, interesting people I might not know. It is the interaction that defines me.
- Create a spam free, streaming, multimedia sharing environment. Stop thinking in terms of me sending a message to you. That concept leads to overfull mail boxes and me feeling the pressure of having to answer them all. Think me sharing the things that are important to me with you. Think of a stream of thoughts, messages, content, emotions I want to share. As a receiver I might look at them, or choose to ignore them for now. Think of sharing on-line, so that my e-mail becomes a streaming messaging service. I don’t have to deal with loads of data in my inbox, the data is on-line available and more important sharable without too many storing and bandwidth constraints.
- Think of ways that I can share the things I have just found somewhere. Control Copy, Control Paste a link or content into an e-mail message sucks from a user perspective. So how can we improve on that?
- Think about the e-mail address book. It doesn’t handle multiple identities, e-mail addresses etc. It doesn’t have any presence capabilities. What if I want something to reach my friend who is not behind a terminal, but is available on his mobile?
- Think about urgency. Everyone sends me e-mails using the red !, so that won’t do anymore as an urgent message concept. Urgency depends on the sender, the receiver, content, place, time, terminal etc. Broaden this concept and make it work for us.
- Think about incorporating social search for subjects, messages, people, anything I need really. Think multimedia, think conversations, etc. Current search capabilities limit me to keywords. But how about interaction during my search.
- Think about decentralization. Make the service USER centric, not PLATFORM centric. Integrate it in all the devices and tools I might want to use. Make it work for me, instead of me working to get it working.
- Think OPEN, let me access the service anywhere, let me import and export anything I want to and from the service, let me have streams available on any platform, or incorporate any other service stream into this service.
- Think about seamless integration of family, friends, contacts across existing platforms. It is such a pain for me to figure out how to add my friend on MySpace, G-mail, MSN, Hotmail, Twitter, Jaiku, Facebook to my address book. And while doing that, think of ways I can easily decide where to land my message to a friend, or perhaps let my friend decide where he wants to receive it.
Arguably these points could fit a number of services, but e-mail still has the position to make it an important social networking hub. It is such a shame if that position is lost because of a lack of innovation. Gmail is just one step into that direction, we need a more radical approach to make e-mail fit for our online social interactions.