Thursday, February 9, 2012

Email, killer app or first successful virus incubator?

I used to like getting emails.  Back in mid 90's I had about a handful of people who sent me emails.  All emails were either from my sister and classmates.  Checking your inbox using Pine was similar to checking your mail box.  When you found an email waiting for you, you were glad to see them.

15+ years later things are different.  Much different.  I get about 120 - 150 emails from people and another 150 - 200 emails from bug tracking system alerting defect change history.  In total I get about 270 - 350 emails a day.  That's just on my Outlook client.  Then I have my personal email accounts which collect about 50 - 100 emails a day from 3 different email accounts.  And I know that I'm just an average user.  I bet that most heavy users get hundreds more emails, if not more (probably Fred Wilson falls in this heavy user category when he blogged about getting drowned in email).

Email has become overloaded with noise AND
it has fundamental problems;
time to move on to the collaboration site
I think that email has reached the level that it's creating a competitive disadvantage for enterprise.  There is constant distraction from the task at hand to respond to the latest email.  Then there is the cost of backing up your inbox and sent box to recover from disaster.  If you work in regulated industry, your email is captured centrally and stored off to archiving server where it can later be put back together in sequence to recreate the message threads involving multiple parties.  These storage and recovery problems are caused by getting the fundamental model wrong for electronic communication.

Although it was not intentional, we've modeled our electronic communication medium based on physical letter mailing paradigm.  The difference is that when you mail a letter, the actual letter that you wrote, the original, is sent to the recipient, whereas when you send an email, what you are really sending is an electronic copy of what you wrote and keeping the original.

If you go back to letter mailing analogy, this amounts to you making a Xerox copy of letter and sending the copy while keeping the original that you wrote.  If the other person response, you now have two copies of what you wrote: your original and the reply that contains your earlier message and the response from the recipient (that's another problem of not thinking about context of electronic correspondence).  It's not only that.  The other recipient also has two copies: what you sent him and what he wrote back.  What's even worse is that if you include multiple recipients, everyone is holding their own electronic copy of the message that you sent!

I recall people calling email as the killer app of Internet.  I think it's real possibility that people may remember email as the first successful virus incubator in a few years from now.  Email gets replicated each time you send, and it's because the email system is set up that way from ground up.  Back in mid 90's when you are getting emails from handful of people, this may have been okay to make copies each time (after all it's not a Xerox copy, but cheap electronic copy), but it leads to all kinds of headaches and hidden costs.

It's time to rethink how we communicate.  It's time to kill the first successful virus incubator and start sharing the electronic data.  It's time to switch to collaboration tool.

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