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Why email refuses to die

Email is inherently inefficient and insecure; there are better, more focused ways for teams to communicate. So why are so many organizations afraid to move away from email?


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Email is the zombie of IT. By all accounts, it should be dead by now, but it won’t stop moving. It isn’t the scary, fast-moving zombie found in today’s horror movies, mind you. It’s a 1970s George Romero zombie: slow-moving, pretty dumb, but dominating you through sheer volume. Email comes at you in hordes to chew through your day, one annoying joke or spam message at a time. It’s such an energy suck, there are even entire disciplines devoted to beating it into submission.

The first email was indeed a 1970s phenomenon, sent in 1971 on the Internet’s beardy parent, the ARPANET. Since then, it has gained massive traction. According to the Radicati Group, which somehow purports to track these things, there will be more than 2.9 billion email users in 2019, up from nearly 2.6 billion last year. Right now, each user has 1.7 email accounts on average. That will grow to 1.9 in 2019. And the number of emails sent and received each day will grow from 205 billion last year to 246 billion by the end of the decade.

Just because 51 per cent of Americans use email doesn’t make it right. Volume isn’t an indicator of validity. After all, one in 20 adults in the U.S. also believes that the country is secretly run by lizard people. Like zombies and lizard people, email is bad for the country. It is inefficient and insecure.

Whole industries have developed to prop it up by filtering out spam and phishing, and frequently fail to do so, leading to massive data breaches. Services focus on including what amounts to unsolicited intrusion techniques to help people work out who has read their email, because the inherent standard doesn’t provide a way of finding out. Email threads can end up including or excluding the wrong people, and leave recipients scrolling through pages of badly formatted, cloned text to find information they need.

There are better, more focused ways for teams to communicate. Tools like Slack are getting traction because they work well, but conceptually speaking, they aren’t that much different to the groupware of old. Anyone who wrestled with Lotus Notes in the ’90s will see the same kinds of functions. The interfaces are better, and users now have mobile access, but many of the features are largely the same. There are also many other collaboration solutions out there that offer to at least mitigate corporate use of email. So why does email remain so popular?

Inertia plays a large part. People are simply used to dealing with each other via email, making it difficult to replace. While we may imagine that millennials rely on social networks for communication, research from a Pew Research report suggests that millennials are just as likely as other generations to be using email — 56 per cent of them had sent or received email in a 24-hour period, compared with 57 per cent of Gen Xers and 54 per cent of boomers.

A lack of standardization is also a likely factor. Email formats are well understood, whereas collaboration tools litter the web, and they don’t always talk to each other. While this allows for effective intra-company communication, it makes things more difficult when companies want to communicate with others outside the organization, especially if those communications are infrequent and ad hoc — such as with customers, for example. Often, you just want to talk to someone on their own turf rather than trying to persuade them to use your own tool, no matter how better its user experience may be.

For that reason if for no other, email shows no signs of dying out. That’s the thing about technology zombies: no matter how hard you try and hit them, they typically just keep on coming.

Image courtesy of Free Digital Photos

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