Email Ready for the Trash Bin

With any luck, email will soon be a thing of the past.

Once a great idea, the open email standard that the internet currently suffers under is now just an example of one of the most inefficient systems ever devised by humankind.

Consider just one truth: 80% of all email is junk. That means that a significant portion of traffic on the internet is unwanted and valueless. That further means that we, through our monthly internet access fees, pay a substantial amount of money to support waste. Even Canada Post makes their spammers pay their own way.

I know people that spend hours every day sorting through their junk mail. Globally, this adds up to billions of dollars of lost productivity.

Even the useful email we receive loses its utility over time. The latest issue of Red Herring reports that 56% of managers can’t find the information they need because it’s buried somewhere in their email.

This is because our inboxes have been transformed into systems they were never intended to be. We use them to manage documents, long letters, photos, music files, even projects. It’s almost cruel, considering that email was only ever intended to be the digital equivalent of a postcard-like system of simple, quick correspondence.

Additionally, due to the tremendous amount of waste we receive through email, we have become, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, “immune” to email. In his book, The Tipping Point, Gladwell explains that, “the more e-mail we get, the shorter and more selective and more delayed our responses become. These are the symptoms of immunity.”

He goes on to proclaim that society is on the look out for a replacement, email having proven itself to be unable to serve our needs.

For years it’s been an accepted fact among technology experts that the current email system is a totally botched job. Designed two decades ago for a small, generally closed academic community, there was a substantial amount of “trust” built into the system. Now that Russian mobsters lord over it, that aged, decrepit system is due for more than an overhaul. It’s ready for the trash bin.

Young people, in their eternal wisdom (or is it blind ignorance?) have already realized this. They are migrating their most common communications to other, more efficient systems such as instant messaging (IM) and cell-phone text-messaging (SMS, or Simple Messaging System). To them, email is for the old folks. And I tend to agree (though I protest my identification as an “old folk”).

One reason that IM and SMS work so well is because they exist on a closed system. A handful of corporations, such as Microsoft, AOL, and Skype, own the network that handles the passage of messages. That makes it almost impossible for any third party group to misuse it. If a particular user ID spams other users, they are quickly identified and removed from the system.

This is virtually impossible to accomplish with standard internet email. As the mob is demonstrating, it’s child’s play to leverage a user-subsidized system like internet email for criminal economic gain.

Another benefit of IM and SMS is its instantaneous nature. With email, you have to go get it. IM and SMS communication comes to you. This is the same with closed-network email systems such as you find on handheld devices like the Blackberry.

Of course, those two benefits are also drawbacks.

For example, as anyone with an IM account knows, there is no cross-talk between these closed networks. If you use AIM for IM, you can’t send messages to users on Microsoft’s network. This typically means that frequent IM-users have to manage multiple IM accounts simultaneously to stay in contact with all their friends.

This seems to be changing, I find, as Skype is slowly becoming a more standard method of communication because of its advanced feature set and capabilities.

The “instant access” feature can also be somewhat annoying. I’ve heard Blackberry users celebrate their “push” email in one breath and then curse it the next for waking them up at 3am.

Finally, if you’re away from your device for any period of time, you’ll probably miss something. IM and SMS are not like email; the messages go stale quickly. The expectation is for a quick response, so if you miss the moment, you miss the chat.

Look to young people for the solution here again. They are abandoning the boat-anchor PC in favour of the pocket-sized mobile computer (yes, cell phones fall into this category). If you’ve got IM in your pocket, you won’t miss anything.

Thought IM and SMS are not perfect systems, they clearly will kill internet email as we know it in the short term. In about 24 months, using email will be the digital equivalent of a owning a rotary phone. For me, that moment can’t come too soon. I’m sick to death of the cliché that the @ sign has become.