E-mail carries many problems that new tools don’t. For example, e-mail isn’t a good way to share knowledge. When I left NEC (NIPNF), I had 1.5 gigabytes of e-mail, including a lot of valuable information that my replacement would have loved to have access to. But when I left, my e-mail account was turned off. I don’t have access to that knowledge now. Neither does NEC. Same thing when I left Microsoft (MSFT).
What’s more, spam continues to menace e-mail accounts in a big way. I have the best anti-spam technology, but it regularly puts important messages into my spam folder, and spam still gets through.
Finally, e-mail doesn’t work with groups very well. If I send a report to my boss, co-workers can’t listen in and add value. On blogs, on the other hand, that happens all the time. (The best ideas, I’ve found, come from people who aren’t directly involved in the project.) When I was writing a book, the audience made all sorts of improvements. If we had just e-mailed directly to the publisher, we would have lost all those group-work advantages.
So, let’s look at how I use Twitter and other Web 2.0 systems like Pownce and Jaiku.
With these applications, spam barely exists. If someone starts spamming the system, he or she gets “unfollowed” and the problem is solved. And everything gets a permalink and a URL. So if I want to link to it or pass it around or get it into search engines, problem solved. You can’t link to an e-mail.
Everyone has an identity on these applications—a picture. And you can see that people are online and answering stuff and what they are doing. Twitter has an API (Application Programming Interface), so messages can be used in new ways, like the display on twittervision.com.
Another advantage: With Twitter, I can watch the streams for things that interest me. For instance, I can have all messages that include the word BusinessWeek sent to me automatically. E-mail, because its main use-case is private, could never do that.
Furthermore, anything said on Twitter stays on the Web. So your knowledge doesn’t disappear; it stays there for your replacement at your employer to study and learn from.
Does that mean e-mail is going away entirely? No. E-mail is still useful for one-to-one messages that must remain private. But e-mail will find less and less utility inside corporations.
I sometimes joke with friends from my Web 1.0 generation that I have a killer idea for a Web 2.0 application. This application will provide businesses with a communications epicenter that employees can use to send and receive any type of digital media, including text, documents, audio, and video—all for little or no cost. Always on, this application will be based on an open standard that allows all employees to connect with the members of their social network regardless of what network they belong to or what Internet-enabled device they use.
My killer Web 2.0 application is, of course, the e-mail in-box—the very place where the overwhelming majority of today’s workers begin and end their business day. Notably, e-mail is also the primary promotional medium for today’s Web 2.0 companies. Social media stalwarts such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and MySpace (NWS) rely on e-mail as their principal way to connect and gain new members. YouTube (GOOG) and Revver leverage e-mail as a viral engine to extend the reach of their video networks. Even Twitter requires an e-mail address during registration so it can send members critical account information.
Admittedly, e-mail users do have some legitimate gripes with the medium. They wrestle with e-mail etiquette. Their stress levels rise when their unread e-mail volume increases. Their blood boils when unsolicited commercial e-mails circumvent their spam filters and waste their time.
I share these frustrations, but I also realize that the solution for business is not more applications—it’s better applications. Accordingly, I firmly believe we should view e-mail and Web 2.0 technologies not as competitors but rather as evolutionary partners. Their mutual goal should be to establish a spam-free in-box in which e-mail, SMS, RSS, IM, voice, and video—even “tweets” if you like—can co-exist and increase employee productivity.
Need a buzzword for this future vision? Call it “Inbox 2.0,” if you must—a communication center that consolidates all messages in one location while tapping the collective knowledge of social networks to filter out illegitimate senders, organize conversations across media, and prioritize content for employee response.
As for e-mail’s place in Inbox 2.0, I submit that it will be front and center, as it is today. Businesses are, after all, creatures of profit, and e-mail still provides the greatest value for the lowest cost.
Could e-mail’s primacy ever be threatened? You know what they say—never say never. For the foreseeable future, however, Web 2.0 pundits would be wise not to confuse e-mail’s maturity with obsolescence. To do so might be to miss out on the Web 3.0 opportunity of a lifetime.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.
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