It’s that time again. It seems to come around at least a few times a year. Time to question if there’s life left in the old email dog.
The first time I heard the death of email predicted was in 1980, as a graduate student in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. I had just joined the set of people whose duties included maintaining and developing the electronic mail and bulletin board systems upon which my department was already dependent. There were well over a hundred machines on the global network, so things had gotten pretty complex.
It was true then, and it's true now: Email is indeed an old technology, with lots of legacy problems. However, that doesn't mean that starting over will necessarily yield a better result, much less one that could justify the cost of the transition.
So, every few years for the last third of a century or so, someone has come along with a grand plan to do something that will make email obsolete. To date, that hasn't happened, largely because most people don't understand why email has been so successful in the first place.
Email has succeeded, in large part, because of the following architectural factors:
- Open protocols. It must be possible for different people to use different software and still communicate with each other. That software can't all be written in the same place. The great virtue of the open protocol process is that anyone can participate, most problems are anticipated, and the result actually works well for multiple vendors.
- Backwards compatibility. In 1980, the Internet was already getting to be too big and distributed to simply change protocols on a "flag day" as it had occasionally. The best way to replace a protocol is to extend and evolve it.
- Inclusivity of community. In the early days of email there were islands of communities, such as CompuServe or FIDOnet, in which people could communicate with each other but not beyond the island. Although some providers tried to stay isolated, the value of having email extend to anyone you might possibly want to reach was overwhelmingly more important than the financial interests of a company like AOL -- a fact that today’s social networks, like the earliest email providers, have so far managed to ignore. IM or email on your social network of choice is great for contacting another ‘friend’, but no good if you want to reach someone outside that closed network.
And, arguably but more controversially, this factor:
- Unauthenticated and uncontrolled. The lack of authentication in Internet mail (and on the Internet in general) is often cited as one of its weaknesses but is in some ways its strength. It's a mixed bag because it simultaneously facilitates certain kinds of criminality while strengthening personal freedom. The ideal balance can be argued, but it seems clear why it has emerged the way it has -- individuals and institutions alike are leery of ceding power where matters of privacy are concerned.
Recently I read in Wired that a new company, Asana, has observed that email is an old technology, with lots of legacy problems particularly inside organizations. So, it wants us to start over with something new. Like its many predecessor email replacements, Asana is no doubt a mix of mostly-good ideas that ignore some of the key factors above. In fact, it reminds me most of an early-90's company called General Magic.
General Magic had done some really good things with asynchronous communication. Most notably, messages could include programs that would be executed on the recipient's end. To do this safely, of course, strong authentication was required. Probably for that reason, General Magic conceived its product as an alternative to email rather than compatible with email.
(It was, by the way, possible to do the same sorts of things in Internet email -- I and other researchers had already done in the past. But it would have required standardization and more complexity, and it would have been far less profitable for General Magic. Dominating all asynchronous communication in the world, that's where the real money is.)
Anyway, what ended up happening to all the well-funded "email replacement" schemes I know of (Asana is founded by Dustin Moskovitz of Facebook fame, General Magic was Apple and AT&T) is that they built some fabulous demos, got a few key "showcase" users, and kept trying until they either ran out of money or evolved a more profitable business model. General Magic did both -- after some hard times, it came back to do things like build the first version of OnStar, but then cratered in the Internet crash.
Asana may do well or badly, I wouldn't care to predict. But I’ll predict that if it’s still around in a few years, it won't be pitching itself as an alternative to email. It'll be telling you how well it works with email and how much it improves email.
I hope it'll be right, because email is an old technology, with lots of legacy problems.