2011 – the year that e-mail dies?

I doubt it. But an interesting article from the London Evening Standard kicks off this idea.

Before we know it, email will seem as quaint as the fax machine and dial-up accounts.

The article starts with the thoughts of Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter. He rarely uses e-mail. And then Mark Zuckerberg (don’t know who he is, something to do with Facebook) who describes e-mail as ‘formal’.

Let me start by saying that I welcome the idea of receiving less e-mail. To me, there is nothing more frustrating than collaboratively sharing a piece of content, or setting up a collaborative activity, and then having someone e-mail their comments or revisions back to you. Actually, maybe trying to open a plastic carrier bag in a supermarket (you know, the ones where the inner surfaces cling to each other) is marginally more frustrating, but you get my point. Neither Mr Dorsey or Mr Zuckerberg work for large multi-national corporations with diverse business units, so their views won’t necessarily ring true with everyone.

Later in the article they discuss the power of social collaboration as a value-add for marketing – that’s something that McKinsey agree with, stating that “companies using the Web intensively gain greater market share and higher margins”. Consider the old mailshot – that’s something likely to end up in my e-mail trash can. But information presented in the right manner on the web, and shared by trusted advisors in your network, is perhaps more likely to find the target.

Ignoring work, I rarely use e-mail. My personal e-mail account receives about ten e-mails a day – not spam, but mainly notifications. It’s rarely e-mail from real people. So here I’ll agree with Dorsey and Zuckerberg, most of my communications with real people outside of work (and some work-related) are via Facebook and Twitter. Now that Florida Steve has an iMac (smart fellow that he is) we use Skype with video to communicate.

My daughter Lolli has found her own way of communicating with her peers, having the luxury of never being put into an environment where e-mail is mandated. She has an e-mail account but rarely uses it – she’s part of the new generation. But will e-mail have disappeared from the workplace in time for her NOT to be given an e-mail client on her first day?

It’s an old habit that has to die hard, and such things don’t happen overnight. I’ve been a Lotus Notes e-mail user for over 19 years… even if that was only 5 years within an organisation that uses e-mail daily it’s a very embedded habit. You need something that replaces e-mail, and something that people will trust, understand and find easy to use. Replacing e-mail is not easy, because your e-mail is actually doing a number of jobs for you – it carries discussions, it delivers content, it notifies you, it draws you into business processes, and it allows you to collaborate with the outside world. However… look at those uses of e-mail… isn’t there a better way of doing all of those?

Of course, there are other ways of doing those things, but the problem is that you end up with something that’s fragmented. Discussions can take place in blogs, forums and activities. Content, I believe, shouldn’t be delivered – it should live in a shared place and you come to it. Notifications…? Let’s come back to that one. And collaborating with the outside world – the good thing about e-mail is that it’s a ubiquitous common denominator, but it’s also a break in the collaborative chain.

Oh, by the way, I should also mention that people receive e-mail on a variety of mobile devices, so you have to throw them into the equation.

Naturally, I’m going to bring this back round to the IBM collaborative portfolio. We’re going down the right path with Lotus Notes – it has the ability to bring most of these things together in the one client. Instant messaging, activities, content sharing, notifications (today in the form of RSS) and e-mail. But this is not the end-point. Look at Connections, in particular the stream of updates from the various facets of the platform. What you see there is starting to get towards the vision – the stream of updates shouldn’t just include stuff from the IBM / Lotus stable. Open standards are key to ensuring that the stream of information includes everything you need. And that is where Project Vulcan is heading. Expect to see much more at Lotusphere ’11 (if you’re going) or wait for the info to start arriving afterwards if you’re not going (like me).

In summary, I don’t believe that e-mail is going to die off this year, or even within the next 5 years. But I can see a time where it will get relegated to the side (the side bar, maybe) and a stream of open interactive notifications from various sources will take the centre-stage.


  1. Personally, I love email, I love the flexibility and permanence of the medium, I love having the option to read/keep/delete messages, to view messages in a thread, to write as much or as little as I wish.

    For me, from a business perspective, my email rules my work life, and provides me with structure and organization. My in-boxes and calendars ( I use Notes for my IBM work, and Outlook for my client work ) will continue to drive what I do from day to day.

    I’ll be interested to see what IBM announces at Lotusphere with regard to Project Vulcan and, in the meantime, I’ll continue to use email as my primary method of communication, with social software providing me with other and less formal methods of communication.

  2. Dave – agree on most of this, but I look forward to the day when activities form the majority of the structure. The real challenge is getting everyone on the same page, but at the moment e-mail is the common denominator.

    Stuart – no, won’t be attending this year. Various reasons, mostly personal, and it was my decision.

  3. For personal communications, maybe. But for work and my customers, never. They could never communicate via Twitter, Facebook or txt message what they need from me, nor could I provide them all the support they need in return. Email has it’s place and always will.

    So for those that don’t communicate via email for Personal, what are you doing?
    Direct Message on Twitter?
    Message on Facebook?
    Aren’t those two essentially the same thing as email??

  4. @Denny – I concur, I’d also say that, depending upon the email solution that one chooses to use, I strongly suspect that Twitter DMs and Facebook messages are fairly insecure e.g. not encrypted etc. but I know that they’re both used for confidential and sensitive data.

  5. Email will not be eradicated, as we still send letters or certainly receive them. I think the important consideration here is that email will decline as a collaboration medium. The one to one nature of some of our communication will still and email is well suited to that, however for email trails related to a common goal it really is not good at this. I won’t go into all the benefits of social software as we all know them. When we discuss social and collaboration in the enterprise the discussions always move to solving business problems not direct communication between individuals. It will be an interesting year next year and if anything social and cloud will serve as disrupters to spark conversations around collaboration and how services are delivered. Its a good time to be a CIO, as long a you are prepared to embrace new ways of working and new thinking. Its no surprise that Lotusphere is focused on social and LotusLive. Lets see what happens, is there a metric we can use to measure email to compare over the next few years.

    @stuart – didn’t we have some kind of bet last year on this ?

  6. email will never go away… the need for a searchable, managed, infinite-length “inbox” to queue your overloaded workload and log your conversations will always be there. People do *not* want to go to an excessively busy screen that is overloaded with non-relevant content when they need to retrieve a dicussion on a single item they spoke to someone about 3 days ago, and they have 30 seconds to find it. Worse… the law dept. hates social networking because records management and ediscovery is an unbeliveable pain in the butt, and, well-managed-easily-understandable security access controls are non-existent.

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