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If e-mail dies - then what?
Posted on 26-Jul-2004 17:29 by Darryl Burling | Filed under: Articles

The recent speculation on the dismissal of e-mail as an effective form of communication caused me some alarm, and to ask the question "What is the alternative?" and "What could work better than e-mail?".

I donít know about you, but e-mail I want to receive falls into two categories. The first is information on products and technology that Iím interested in. For you this will be the industry information you are interested in. Whatever this information is it comes from organizations rather than individuals.

The second type of information I like to receive is really the sort of information that e-mail was designed to carry - that is personal information. This is the personal correspondence between myself and the people who I need to communicate with. This is information to and from individuals.

Any alternatives to e-mail must effectively communicate on both of these planes and realistically it needs to be more effective than e-mail is today.

I think that there are two technologies that can replace e-mail in these categories, but these are not without their hurdles as you will see.

The first of these technologies is suitable to replace e-mail from organizations. This technology is RSS. The good thing about RSS is that it is a pull and not a push. You select the information you want and you pull it down on a schedule. You donít have to fight your way through spam and itís easy to add and remove subscriptions if you donít like what you see. RSS delivers only the information you want and its ready to read when you want to read it.

replacing e-mail to distribute content: RSS reader
A RSS feed reader program and content

The problem with RSS fulfilling this role is threefold.

Firstly the websites that have RSS feeds are limited - very few if any product companies have RSS feeds available that you can subscribe to. This means that it is generally impossible to use RSS to keep up with product information at the source of the product.

The second problem is that the sites that do have RSS subscriptions available see RSS as either a nuisance or a potential revenue stream which means that in the long term the RSS feeds on these sites will probably be less accessible at best - more likely they will disappear entirely. Typically the sites with RSS are news sites or blogs, both of which are useful for aggregating news to a single source. So if these RSS sources dry up it will eliminate RSS as a useful information source. It strikes me as ironic that companies that want people to know about product releases, etc donít have RSS feeds available as a source of information and that those who have RSS feeds generally donít care as much about the news itself - such sites are about the visitors not the news and survive on advertising revenue and/or subscriber revenue from visitors.

The third problem with RSS is that unless the site has multiple feeds available, you will get every scrap of news that is published. This is not always a problem. If the company only has one product that you want to keep track of this, the it is quite convenient, but if the company has over 1200 products available (like Computer Associates) the announcements can be burdensome.

If RSS is to become a valid delivery mechanism in the workplace, its going to have to grow up and get some features that allow for centralised administration of subscriptions.

The technology that could replace e-mail in a personal sense is instant messaging or IM. IM already has huge popularity, and is better than e-mail on a personal level because it can convey emotions better and allows the parties to clear up any misunderstanding before it becomes a problem.

Instant contact: Instant Messaging
Keeping in contact with a IM client

IM also allows file transfer between parties as well as a number of other features that e-mail does not have. In addition IM is real time, it can be taken mobile (e.g. With a Windows Mobile Pocket PC or Smartphone) and all conversations can be recorded.

The biggest drawback to IM is the adoption. While IM has widespread adoption today, corporate adoption has been slow. Expect this to change though as companies start to look for more effective ways to communicate without the noise of spam.

Another improvement would be to see a bigger uptake of always connected mobile devices. Fortunately, as phones and PDAs continue to merge, this will only get better. Users of devices like the XDA II and HTC Falcon can today be connected via a usable version of MSN Messenger wherever they are. This means they can communicate, send and receive files, and even open them without having to return to their desk. And all this without e-mail.

There is also the problem of disparity. As it stands today, the IM world is a group of varying systems that generally donít interoperate well (if at all) with each other. If one person is a user of Yahoo Messenger and someone else is a user of MSN Messenger, the two cannot talk unless one of the parties crosses over to the others side and downloads and signs up with the other partiesí messenger system.

Finally the IM world is already starting to see unsolicited messages from outside parties. How far this gets remains to be seen. I've never had a problem with this myself, and I'd hate to see another communications method go the way of e-mail.

So practically how does this work? In a corporate environment, company wide announcements are delivered to the company intranet and the users RSS readers pull down the information to their computer and read it either in their RSS reader or in their web browser. Departmental messages are delivered to a different RSS feed that the appropriate users are subscribed to. Legitimate companies should syndicate their news feeds and publicize them to their customers so that their announcements get to their customers within minutes of them being made. There is no room for spam in this model - but there is room for paid advertising.

In summary - is this a perfect solution? No. Does it have the potential to be useful long term? Yes. This combination is not quite ready to be an e-mail replacement right now, but it may become a viable alternative in the next two years if these technologies are nurtured and mature a little more.

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