What’s going to replace email?
Email has been around, largely unchanged, since the 1960s. It’s got numerous drawbacks, and though most of the technical limitations have been worked around via the use of external tools (e.g. spam filters), there remain several cultural issues to be solved. What tools will work alongside email to fill the gaps? What characteristics do we want those tools to have?
In an effort to answer those questions, I’m going to think through some of the ways in which we use email.
1 - Asynchronous communication
Email’s asynchronous nature means that communication sent over it can be addressed whenever is convenient for the recipient. This means it shouldn’t interrupt work. This feature is known to be broken in places which have tighter cultural expectations for response time. Alternatively, email can be forgotten, which necessitates the use of vacation responders to let your coworkers know that no, their emails aren’t lost in your inbox, you’re just out of the office.
I’d regard this as the main advantage of email. It’s communication that doesn’t interrupt the recipient until they can take a break from other work.
Tools that implement this feature:
- Slack. I use Slack mostly for asynchronous communication. I have a few private channels that contain only me and a friend, and we share things back and forth without generating notifications on the recipient side. Unless we actually have something urgent, in which case a notification is generated with a simple @-mention. The flexibility here is what makes Slack my communication method of choice. Note that I would hate it if I had most of my conversations over direct messages; getting several in a row is annoying enough.
- Social media style tools (e.g. Yammer). I don’t really use our work Yammer so much. It’s effectively Facebook for work, and I don’t see the appeal. It does implement asynchronous messaging, but it’s behind a newsfeed abstraction which allows individual messages to be lost and possibly never seen in the first place.
2 - Document sharing
The attachment feature of email allows us to share files back and forth. It’s easier than burning a CD or copying a file to a flash drive, and in 2018, why should we be sharing files over physical media anymore?
Tools that implement this feature:
- Dropbox/Box. They do piggyback off of email, but they have a much higher per-file limit than email attachments. Also, the permission scheme Box has for corporate users has been incredibly useful to me. Not sure if Dropbox has something similar.
- Slack. Slack’s file sharing doesn’t have much more than email. Inlining pictures is nice, so it’s better than email at that.
3 - Archival
One of the more important ways we use email is to archive discussions and decisions in a way that’s easily searchable. It’s important for legal records as well in some places. Any tool that will be used to facilitate decision making needs to implement something like this.
As far as I know, there aren’t any tools that implement this. I’m aware that Slack has a search feature, but I haven’t been impressed with its performance and the results it returns. Slack does offer a compliance export feature that would satisfy legal requirements, and plausibly would set you up to then load that data into something like ElasticSearch, but that’s a bit more work than I’d want to do to get a good search function in a tool I’m paying for.
Overall, I’d say nothing is going to replace email, at least in the short term. The archive and search features of email have been better than the competition in my experience. Additionally, I did not speak about the open nature of the email standard - anyone can build a service to send & receive email. There are cultural issues with running your own email server, rooted in drawbacks of the protocol itself, but I’m gonna save that for another blog post. I’d like to see a real competitor come out for email. It would have to meet the three things I’ve noted here, and also provide a gateway out to the email ecosystem. I don’t know what that’d look like, but I might explore that in a future post.
With this one I’m sure I’ve missed something. I haven’t dived deep into workplace collaboration tools in a long time, and I’ve only included tools I can speak confidently on - that I’ve used recently. What did I miss on that front? And more interestingly, did I miss any ways in which you use email?