Email futures

Email is so much a part of our lives that we don’t even think about it. But our use of it will change over time as new tools are added to the mix.

Instant messaging and the chat tools used on blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are transforming communications. Email is fast but chatting is instantaneous - the connection is as spontaneous as sitting next to someone and having a conversation. Some say you don't get that with email.

Which is why for the last few years we have had reports that email is just so last millennium and is becoming the new snail mail. The Pew Research Centre in the US has research showing that younger people use it infrequently and only if they have to. They use email mostly to talk to institutions, adults and others less reachable by text messaging. The bottom line for them is that texting and instant messaging is more immediate.

Last week, there were two interesting developments with email. At the beginning of the week, AOL launched Project Phoenix, designed as a complete overhaul of the email system with a "quick bar" at the top for sending short emails, instant messages popping up in Google Chat-like windows, and text messages. Phoenix has three main viewing panes: one for folders, one for viewing emails, and one for viewing attached content such as photos. It will be up and running next year and AOL obviously hopes it will revive the brand which has lagged so far behind the rest of the pack.

Then Facebook followed up with its announcement of a messaging system that combines online chat, texting and other real-time conversation tools, with traditional email, a move that some analysts have described as a “Gmail killer”. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has proclaimed that the future of online conversation will be chat, not email. Similarly, tech analysts Gartner predict that email will be replaced by social networking. Gartner reckons that 20 percent of business communication will be through social networking sites by 2014.

You can see the pattern. With both AOL and Facebook, the strategy is to broaden email, and create more spontaneity by combining it with texting and chat features.  

Of course, Facebook’s move into email will be watched carefully given the mistakes the company has made in the past with privacy. Facebook has shared user information with third party websites and its privacy controls are hard to follow.

When Facebook was primarily about status updates, it would  not have been that big a problem. But when it moves to encouraging private communications through a new messaging system, it will have to protect data. The bottom line is this: the more people start using Facebook's messaging service, the more data about you Facebook will be able to collect. There are already warnings from security experts that Facebook’s new messaging will be targeted by spammers, scammers and malware pushers. My tip is that many will be reluctant to trust Facebook completely.

Email is unlikely to disappear. People will want to use email ID for official and professional purposes. As commentator Samyuktha Krishnappa says, who would use @facebook.com on their resume or as part of their official work correspondence? Who would take you seriously?

Indeed, Doug Gross at CNN says your email address probably says a lot about you. If you are on @aol.com, he says, you’re probably 70 years old or too lazy to upgrade. @hotmail is regarded not much better and few take @yahoo that seriously. Gross says that if you use your work email all the time, it’s a sign that you don’t have much of a life. He says @gmail usually tells people you know your way around a computer and me@mywebsite says you are totally tech savvy.

What is the future of email? Which do you prefer to use - email, text or chat? Can you see email being replaced or will it always have a place?

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