Email has had a rough ride of late with many predicting its death at the hand of social networks.
Certainly, the once unassailable dominance of email has taken a beating: international IT supplier Atos Origin recently revealed it is considering banning email to help staff deal with information overload, while it has been reported that the number of emails sent by teenagers is in decline.
But could it be that reports of the death of email are exaggerated?
Dr Nathaniel Borenstein is co-creator of the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension (MIME) protocol that among other things allows attachments to be sent via email. He argues that email will exist for a long time to come - or at least until social networks start to talk to each other.
Social networks will, he said, remain at a disadvantage to email - particularly in when it comes to business communications - as long as users of competing social networks can’t talk to each other.
Right now the situation is analogous to the 80s and 90s when ISPs would only let you send email to subscribers at the same ISP.
“They felt that using gateway to internet mail would cause their users to start to slip away,” he said, speaking to TechRepublic on the 20th anniversary of MIME’s creation.
“As long as they had this extreme dominance in the user market it was in their interest to resist. At some point they switched because they had lost the market share,” said Borenstein who is now chief scientist for UK cloud email specialist Mimecast.
But with about 850m users worldwide Facebook has little to worry about in terms of market share - and therefore little interest in supporting open protocols that would let its users message people on rival networks.
And so until social network can speak unto social network, Borenstein said, businesses will need to continue to use email to communicate with those outside the enterprise.
“If we were only using social networking I could say ‘What’s your Facebook id?’ and you might say ‘I only use Google+?’. You have to negotiate, there’s no standard mechanism, and for that reason social networking is a lot less useful for business then it’s for individuals.”
Borenstein points out that overall use of email is still growing - a study by the Radicati group predicted that the number of email accounts will grow from 3.1 billion to 4.1 billion from 2011 to 2015. The decline in the use of email by teenagers doesn’t necessarily indicate a long-term trend, he said, as he believes these same individuals will need to start using email on entering work.
“At High School kids can say ‘We just use Facebook’ or but when they go out into the job marketplace and need to contact other people, they can’t tell all the people they have to deal with you have to use Facebook. They have to find a user mechanism that is universal and right now the only one on the table is email.”
However there is a question mark over how long email is guaranteed a place in enterprise. As corporate-focused networks like LinkedIn and Yammer continue to grow in popularity some predict that these networks will replace email as the default platforms for inter-company communication.
Whatever the outcome Borenstein said the changing nature of electronic comms shouldn’t be viewed as an eradication of what came before.
“It’s still what I consider email, it’s person-to-person store-and-forward messaging. It’s not the death of email, it’s the evolution of email.”