4.1 billion reasons why email isn’t going away

According to a Radicati report, key statistics show 2.5 billion active email users were exchanging a staggering 244 billion emails a day in 2015. The number of email users projected for 2021 is 4.1 billion.

So much for the death of email at the hands of social media! What is going on?

Email is an open standard

We mostly think of email as a method of exchanging messages. But it’s easy to forget that a large proportion of those messages contain attachments – reports, invoices, statements, files, etc. – and web links too, which point to yet more information. We use email because it is an open standard that works across most computers and mobiles. No matter which email software you use, it can exchange emails with almost any other email software from any software manufacturer.

Document exchange and filing

By attaching a pdf document to an email, you can also exchange any document. (Although strictly a pdf is not an open standard. Adobe, its original designers allow it to be used royalty free). Imagine the situation if you could only view an invoice, say, with the application that produced it. You would have to own and run every type of accounts package for which you are likely to receive invoices. The same goes for every other type of document.

If we were all highly organised, we might download our attachments and file them away on our computers. Or would we? What’s the point? They may just as well stay on our email server as on our workstations and mobile devices. But there is more to it than that.

Indexing and searching

As emails, we can search for documents in the context of the message to which they are attached. What we are doing is using the messages as an index our documents. If we were to download every attachment and we were organised about filing them, we would still need a way to find them when we wanted them. This might involve defining some folder structure and/or adding metadata so we could find the specific document we are looking for. What is the point when the email gives us so much context and stores them for us too?

So the email server has become a file server – not ideal, but it works, kind of.

Email Servers v File Servers

The problem is that email servers were never intended to be used that way. File servers were designed as a way of sharing files on high-speed local network. Email servers, on the other hand, worked on the then (1990s) slow public internet using the POP protocol – in which text messages, once delivered, stayed with the recipient. File servers store files in their native format, whereas email requires that files be converted into text format (using the MIME standard), usually doubling their size and and slowing down access to them. As Internet and computer speeds have increased, and users have moved (or been pushed) to the IMAP protocol – where messages remain on the server and can grouped into folders – it has become practical to store attachments in situ. And store them we have, in their billions..

If not email, then what?

But if we are going to chuck email out, what are we going to replace it with? For sure, not social media. It’s mostly worse than even email for serving up files, and there are so many variants. How could we all agree on one? Even services which are better than email for internal company collaboration become unworkable for enterprises and inter-company work. And what happens if the sender is not using the same social media/collaboration tool as the intended recipient? Or their social media host goes out of business? Most social media hosts do not use open standards.

“Though there is increased use of IM, social networking, and other forms of communication, email continues to show steady growth, as all IM, social networks and other services require users to have an email address to access their services. In addition, all online transactions (i.e. shopping, banking, etc.) require a valid email address.” – Radicati.

As long as there are no competing open standards and companies need to connect with one another, email is here to stay.

So what are the problems with email? One can be summarised as information overload. Users receive so much irrelevant email that they can easily miss the important stuff – or they cannot find what they want.

Spam filters are not the answer

You would be forgiven for thinking that spam or junk email is a major cause of this. But it isn’t. Aside from the issue of how you define spam, it is unlikely that more than 20% a email’s users’ inbox is spam. While it is true that some studies claim that junk is rising (proportionately), the majority of it can and is detected automatically (algorithmically) using various types of spam filter. Furthermore, many users choose to continue receiving unsolicited emails that might be of use later (arguably, not junk) – for example, discount offers from their local supermarket. It becomes a problem when the spam filters overreach themselves and try to distinguish between what is spam and what might be spam. It is then that we find them removing emails we really wanted to see. Personally, I would rather not remove spam at all than risk remove something important – but that is another story.

So what is?

Given email is not (in the short term) going away and that so many moan about it, how are we going to deal with it? My thesis is that we accept how we use email and embrace it. Rather than change the user, we adapt the system to fit the user. We also encourage the user to share email instead of keeping it private. It is our experience that less than 5% of email in an average employee’s company inbox is confidential.

Contrary to intuition, sharing email can vastly lessen the information overload burden. By sharing it, we can stop using “cc” as a form of absolution. How many times have you heard…

“Oh, didn’t you know? I did cc you!”

A large proportion of information overload can be due to unnecessary cc’ing of email. It can cause an exponential increase in the amount of email you receive.

Speeding things up

Another problem is that in order to overcome the slowness of an email server in accessing messages and attachments, many devices (or more correctly, their email applications) store a local copy on the local “disk”. Most users are oblivious to this – except for the fact that a lot more disk space seems to be taken up than think should be.

To compound this problem, if the same message and attachment is cc’d to several people, there may well be a copy stored on each person’s workstation AND a copy for every person in their email server account. So if, for example, you send someone a 10MB file (which becomes 20MB when encoded) and copy in 3 other people, a total 10 x 20MB = 200Mb will be stored in various places – and frequently on the same server. It all mounts up.

Merging emails

But how do you share a message if you don’t cc it? Well, many proprietary and open source email servers provide ways of sharing email folders amoungst users. However, their big drawback is that they only share email that they serve up. So if a company or employees use several email systems, they cannot be “joined” together. Worse still, they rely on each user manually deciding with emails should be shared. Last but not least, they lock the organisation into one particular email system and not surprisingly, one message type (ie emails).

The importance of privacy

What we do is automatically ingest all company email, and put it in a Cloud database. This can be done at the server/network level with absolutely no impact on the user. Intelligent Cloud-based processes can analyse the email and decide what is private and should not be shared, and also intelligently categorise the rest according to the contacts, the companies and the projects involved. Most important, the database engine can split off the attachments and transparently (and natively) store them in a Cloud-based file server. It is  industrial-strength – designed for the job. The attachments still maintain their relationship with the original message – so important for finding them – yet they can be accessed and searched as easily as with a local file server.

Searching made easy

Having done this, it is no longer necessary to cc colleagues – most of which would not have read the cc mail anyway. Users can browse and search the database any time they wish but, unlike their own email application, they can see all the relevant correspondence not just that in their own inbox. Browsing for a specific email in the general context of a third-party company, contact or project is generally far easier than searching for something you cannot remember enough about to make it unique – eg “meeting”. Even though there is potentially much more data than in your own inbox, it is much easier to find what you are looking for.

Storage reduction

Also, because the messages have been transferred to an off-site database which is optimised for searching and browsing, users no longer need to worry about deleting messages that are not immediately relevant, and can concentrate just on those that are. Last but not least, only one copy of the message is stored, no matter how many recipients there are.

More emails not less?

So successful can this be that it becomes a major benefit to convert other types of “message” such as telephone conversations or say Tweets into the message currency. Rather than add to information overload, they add to the employee’s picture of their organisation. When looking at a company interaction purely in the context of one’s own emails is often like trying to piece together fragments of a long lost buried manuscript. Once relevant messages and phone calls involving colleagues are seen together, the picture soon become clear – the bigger picture. The use of speech recognition and voice recognition, can enhance this enormously, allowing phone calls to be searched for keywords, and callers to be identified from their voices.

And the real beauty of this is that for employees, nothing changes. No special new applications for workstation or mobile are required, so nothing new to learn. Just a browser-based application that staff go to whenever they need to find something. Which is pretty much all the time.

So if you think email is going away, think again. All we need to do is tame it. And with Threads, we believe we have made a significant step towards so doing