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Why email isn’t going away

Director of Content, Intercom

John Collins


Why do we still spend so much time on email? Unloved by users, generation after generation of startups have tried to sound its death knell. But no matter how often it’s death is predicted it just doesn’t go away.

Initially hailed for allowing us to communicate globally for minimal cost, a killer app in the 90s, email is now considered a chore. The more organized of us block out time in our diary to tackle it, but also to ensure the rest of our day is not interrupted by the drip of new messages into our inbox. We’re told that the goal should be inbox zero as if wrestling with messages is a competitive activity where we need to keep score. Little wonder we are so quick to embrace anything that promises to remove email from our lives.

Email killers

Spam was going to kill email. But even though spammers now send around 100 billion Viagra ads, 419 scams and details of work from home fortunes, thanks to Gmail and other filters we rarely if ever see them.

AOL Instant Messenger, MySpace, Facebook – all these things were going to replace email but the first two flamed out and Facebook dropped $19 billion because it wasn’t happy with its own messaging efforts

Tools like Xobni were going to help us better manage email. But the ubiquity of Gmail meant search became less hassle, and cheaper, than herding mail into a bunch of offline folders. Why spending time trying to manage it when I can easily find every message I’ve sent and received?

More recently a succession of collaboration apps – Yammer, Asana, Slack – have been hailed as email killers. That makes neat headlines, but the reality is more complex.

Slack claims to have prevented 700 million unnecessary emails being sent and some fans say they haven’t sent an internal email since signing up, but it’s an internal tool. (And like all tools claiming to be killing email, guess how you sign up? Email.)

Products like Slack or Asana don’t replace email, but they do encourage us from sending it in situations where it’s the wrong medium. At Intercom we firmly believe in the right medium for the right message. Want to announce a new product feature? Pop-up a message when customers are in the app and can try it straight away. Looking to re-engage customers you might be about to lose? Send them an email to try and get them back.

What’s wrong with email?

Perhaps you are one of those people whose inbox is a model of time and task management rather than the chaotic mess that seems to the norm? If you fall into the former camp, you’re probably asking yourself what’s the problem with email? After all it’s universal, reliable and free. What’s not to like?

For a start email is primarily being used for something it was never intended – task management. Paul Graham nailed this in his essay on Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas, where replacing email was one of his seven big ideas. What’s really needed is a “to-do” protocol rather than a messaging protocol, because in our business lives email has become our never-ending reminder/to-do list. Google’s Inbox interface for Gmail is a useful interim step if we are to decouple tasks from messages – it puts task management front and centre while maintaining a recognisable inbox paradigm.

The problem as several commentators have pointed out is that email is basically just a digital copy of the mail service – which hasn’t fundamentally changed since it was invented in the 17th century. A car wasn’t just a faster horse, in the same way that a PC wasn’t a faster typewriter. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious as we push its limitations that email is just a faster letter, admittedly with some digital features grafted on (e.g. BCC, auto responders).

Clearly the world is crying out for a more efficient alternative to email that frees us up to be more productive. But email has become so embedded in our workflows that there are many situations where there isn’t a workable alternative and no sign of one on the horizon. No matter how much we loathe it, here’s just five reasons email will remain indispensable for the foreseeable future.

1. Establishing Identity

How do people sign up and create an account to use your product? With email, right? Oh, you’ve outsourced that job to Facebook or Twitter? So how do you sign up for an account over there? Well, email, of course.

Putting all this trust in an email account really just displaces the issue of establishing identity. Once upon a time an email address at least meant you were paying $10 a month to AOL or were enrolled in a college but now you just grab whatever address you can from Gmail. This in turn allows you create accounts at all the major services – Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn – that have become de facto endorsements of identity.

2. First contact

How do you follow up with people you have met at a conference? Email is the lowest common denominator and that’s not a bad thing. That potential business partner might be on Facebook Messenger, WeChat, Voxer, Line, WhatsApp, Snapchat even, but you know she’s going to have an email address. Ultimately you might use Basecamp, Trello, or Confluence to manage things when you start working together but nothing compares to email for laying the initial groundwork.

3. Email newsletters

RSS, which let’s face it was only ever a preferred option of news junkies and the tech intelligentsia, is dead. No, really dead. And email newsletters are enjoying a renaissance. Sure lots of us use email as a straight replacement for RSS – sign up to a blog, get emailed new posts, filter them to a folder, and then bulk read when you have time.

But newsletters like MediaREDEF (which has spawned a VC-backed business), Dave Pell’s NextDraft and even The New York Times’ What We’re Reading are publications that are actually welcomed into inboxes. With ProductHunt, Ryan Hoover spun an email experiment into a startup closing a $6.1 million Series A round in less than a year.

4. Email innovation

Google’s Inbox innovates by acknowledging that most of us use our email as a to do list and a repository of information related to those tasks. Taking a cue from Google Now it aims to surface relevant information at the right time and makes more than a passing nod to services like, Inky and Mailbox, which have useful takes on limiting email overload.

With a lot of the noise and distractions stripped away email on mobile is for many a better experience than desktop. The first mobile email I downloaded in 2001 (to my Palm V tethered to a Nokia 5110) is very different from the messages I just viewed in the Gmail app on my iPhone. It’s like the difference between black and white television and Apple TV. Now email downloads quickly on the go, it looks good on most devices, and attachments generally open in the right app. Apps like MailTime – which uses the messaging metaphor and strips out the noise of email – show us that there is still plenty of innovation possible around email.

5. Ubiquity

Everyone under the age of 25 uses modern messaging tools like Snapchat, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Viber but they still have email addresses (albeit primarily to communicate with the over 25s and sign up for services). It’s an exciting time in the messaging space as new modes of communication are being introduced and rapidly adopted.

But it still seems some way off before Millennials displace email in the workplace with the messaging apps they use in their personal lives. What do you default to when you need to send feedback on a contract to your boss who is travelling? Snapchat?

The return of the letter

The Atlantic contributing editor Alexis Madrigal penned an interesting love letter to email, warts and all, earlier this year. Maybe he got it right when he wrote email will become an electronic letter writing platform: “Email could become a home for the kinds of communications that come in the mail: letters from actual people, bills, personalized advertisements, and periodicals.”

Email’s far from perfect. And hopefully it becomes far less of a time sink in the coming years. But it’s far from dead. It’s far too embedded in our workflows and our personal lives for that.