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The first networked electronic mail message was sent by Ray Tomlinson of Bolt Beranek and Newman in 1971. This year, according to market research firm Radicati Group, 3.8 billion email users worldwide will send 281 billion messages every day.

That's 3.2 million messages a second—hotel reservations, meeting notices, greetings from friends, product designs, receipts, flirtations, complaints, requests for help and, of course, spam. You may feel like a substantial number of them end up in your inbox.

And yet, some observers say email is dying. It's so 'last century', they say, compared to social media messaging, texting, and powerful new collaboration tools. The youngest computer users don't use email much, as you know if you ever tried to email your teenager. When Alice texts Bob about lunch, she doesn't care that her message won't be filed in a "lunch" folder and stored in an archive; she wants something fast, easy, and informal.

Meanwhile, even the most mature users decry the manifold faults of email: its sometimes-cumbersome interfaces, slow response, lack of flexibility, security holes, and spam.

Finally, a host of software entrepreneurs want you to believe their replacements for old-fashioned email are better in every way.

On the other side of the issue stand email power users such as Craig Partridge, chief scientist at Raytheon BBN Technologies (which started out as Bolt Beranek and Newman). "Email is not dying," he says. "It has a core set of functions that no other service has effectively replaced. It gives people tremendous control over how their messages are handled. Users are not locked into a particular user interface, and they know their email will be around, and searchable, as long as they decide to keep it."

Partridge, who was voted into the Internet Hall of Fame last year for his invention of mail-exchange records for email routing, praises email's use of vendor-independent open standards. "It prevents walled gardens—the inevitable attempt by someone to control your email flow. That's especially important in the corporate world."

Indeed, Radicati Group says reports of the death of email are greatly exaggerated, predicting email message traffic will grow 14% over the next three years, to 319.6 billion messages a day by 2021.

So, is email dying or not? It's a matter of definition. Just what is "email," anyway?

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Beyond Messaging

For decades, basic email has been based on open standards within the TCP/IP suite of protocols. These include SMTP, for sending messages between servers, and POP and IMAP for reading or retrieving messages from servers.

Most applications users think of as email today go way beyond those basic message-handling functions. Popular email clients such as Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo, and Thunderbird include powerful and intuitive user interfaces, interfaces to other applications, spam filters, and tools for managing, organizing, archiving, and searching messages.

The newest offerings from startups such as Superhuman, Edison, and Basecamp position their products less as messaging tools than as personal assistants, organizers of the threads of your digital life.

"It's hard to tell if email is on its way to becoming obsolete, or on its way to becoming even more central to how we do things," says Jon Kleinberg, Tisch University Professor of Computer Science at Cornell University and an expert on social and information networks.

As an example, Kleinberg cites TripIt, a smart organizer of travel-related email messages. TripIt will sift through your inbox, harvest travel-related items, update your calendar, and send you master itineraries. TripIt combines rules-based heuristics and artificial intelligence (machine learning and natural language processing) to recognize and make sense of travel information from hotels, car rental companies, travel agents, and the like.

Kleinberg applauds the emergence of such email-based organizing tools, yet he cautions, "With all these artificial assistants, there is this trade-off between the effort they save and the concerns that they will miss something."

Microsoft thinks of its Outlook email product as the basis for personal time management, and in recent years it has added calendar- and task-management functions to Outlook's basic messaging. The company is taking a "suite approach" to its Office 365 applications, says Gaurav Sareen, Microsoft corporate vice president for Outlook, Yammer, and Groups. Outlook and other Microsoft applications, such as Word and Cortana, share fundamental capabilities and methods, many of them based on artificial intelligence.

For example, Sareen says, machine learning and natural language processing algorithms will soon be able to look at a draft email message and warn the user that a particular sentence is too formal, too informal, or culturally insensitive. This advice is based on three "signals"—knowledge of the user's established habits, awareness of what the user's organization does, and knowledge about the user population at large. In an application of artificial intelligence (AI) using these same signals, Outlook will be able to make shrewd guesses as to which incoming messages merit quick action by the user, a filtering especially useful on small, portable devices. Sareen says AI capabilities like this grow better over time as they increasingly learn about their users and their preferences.

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So Many Choices ...

Kleinberg says users choose among a rich variety of messaging applications using two criteria, including the "ephemerality" of the intended message. With email, response times are often measured in days, and users expect that, "But if you get an answer to your text after two days, you might not even know what it's about anymore," he says. It is further assumed that an email message will survive for retrieval months later if needed, but in a couple of hours Bob and Alice won't care about their lunch deliberations.

The second basic discriminator among messaging applications is the strength of the social ties between communicators, Kleinberg says. Users of text messaging and social media-based messaging, for example, usually know each other pretty well, but email users very often do not.

Mapbox, an eight-year-old developer of open-source software tools for location-dependent applications, illustrates the breadth of messaging methods that companies have adopted in recentyears. It uses Gmail and voice telephone for communicating with external parties, such as recruits and sales prospects. Internally, when employees want a quick, informal message path, they may use Slack, a tool designed for collaboration in project teams. Mapbox has 500 active, user-defined, subject-specific chat rooms, or channels, on Slack, and in a recent month its 300 employees sent 500,000 messages via Slack.


"It's hard to tell if email is on its way to becoming obsolete, or on its way to becoming even more central to how we do things."


Julie Munro, manager of customer success at Mapbox, thinks of Slack as an instant-messaging tool for simple, routine communication. "If we feel a conversation in Slack is getting pretty big, and there are some crucial decisions that a couple of people should weigh in on, we'll ticket it and take it to GitHub," she says. GitHub is nominally for software version control and source code management, but it is increasingly used for all kinds of communication among developers.

Mapbox has more than 1,000 subject-specific "repositories" on GitHub, many of them containing code, many others containing message traffic about code, customers, and various subjects of ongoing importance to the company. Ticketed issues are visible to all employees and offer views of company activities and history not easily duplicated by an email system, Munro says. "It's a great way to have open, transparent decision-making," she adds.

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... So Little Time

Partridge at BBN Technologies uses Outlook for business mail and Gmail for his personal messages. He processes 300 non-spam email messages a day, and as a touch typist he uses keyboard shortcuts extensively. He says email interfaces have "gone downhill" for the power user over the past 10 years. "Searching has improved, but dispatching emails mostly requires clicking on things. It takes forever; you click on a message and it wants to pop up a separate window, and it takes a half-second to display. In this day and age, you should never wait for your computer once you have made a decision."

Cornell's Kleinberg, who handles between 100 and 200 messages a day, agrees. "Most of us deal with an extremely high rate of in-bound information," he says. "At some point, the bandwidth constraint becomes human and not technological. Even with all the artificial assistants in the world, there's a point at which it's cognitively hard to keep track of it all."

* Further Reading

Antoun, J.
Electronic Mail Communication Between Physicians and Patients: A Review of Challenges and Opportunities Family Practice, Volume 33, Issue 2, 1 April 2016, pages 121–126 https://academic.oup.com/fampra/article/33/2/121/2404246

Kleinberg, J.
The Small-World Phenomenon: An Algorithmic Perspective Proceedings of the 32nd ACM Symposium on Theory of Computing, 2000 http://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/swn.pdf

Partridge, C.
The Technical Development of Internet Email IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Volume 30, Number 2, April-June 2008 https://muse.jhu.edu/article/240040

Rhotan, J.
Programmer's Guide to Internet Mail: SMTP, POP, IMAP, and LDAP, 1st Edition Elsevier, Nov. 1999, eBook ISBN: 9780080515137 https://www.elsevier.com/books/programmers-guide-to-internet-mail/rhoton/978-0-08-051513-7

Takkinen, J. and Shahmehri, N.
Are You Busy, Cool, or Just Curious? – CAFE: A Model with Three Different States of Mind for a User to Manage Information in Electronic Mail Human IT: Journal for Information Technology Studies as a Human Science, vol. 2, no. 2, 1998 University of Borås (Sweden) https://humanit.hb.se/article/view/495

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Author

Gary Anthes is a technology writer and editor based in Arlington, VA, USA.


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