Jul 22 2004

The Rumors of Email’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

I’d like to think that Mark Twain would wholeheartedly approve of me paraphrasing his famous quote for this purpose, but I’m getting a little tired of all these reports about how email is dead. The latest one comes in the form of an op-ed in Computerworld this week. This will be a longer post than usual — my apologies in advance.

The writer talks about how email will die soon because there are too many issues with viruses, spam, IT management costs, and employment practices. The writer says email is close to having a bigger downside than upside, and that email will go the way of the typewriter or the floppy disk drive.

I say that this is a writer who has a bad IT department or a bad email service, a stunning lack of faith in technology’s ability to overcome adversity, and perhaps a misunderstanding of basic economic productivity.

Email is alive and well, as far as I can tell:

Consumer email adoption is huge and rising. Every time I see one of those market research surveys from Pew or NFO, email activity and adoption is on the rise. It’s the number one Internet-based activity, with nearly 100% of people using it and a huge percentage of those people addicted to it.

Email business usage is now mission critical for most employees. Enough said, for this audience, anyway. Economic productivity gains from email usage are outpacing the costs of having email system administrators and spam filters by orders of magnitude. For a quick flashback, compare the time spent firing off an email to 5 members of your staff, cc’ing your boss, and bcc’ing two of your other colleagues to the analog analog of making phone calls, holding meetings, or dictating/longhanding a memo, typing it with carbon paper or even using a photocopier, then physically distributing it.

Spam filters are getting better by the day. While there is still a cat-and-mouse game going on between spammers and spam filters that will always result in a certain amount of false positives (good email that gets filtered) or false negatives (spam that sneaks into your inbox anyway), how many heavy email users can honestly say that their actual inbox spam problem is worse now than it was a year ago? The false positive and false negative problems will be largely solved in one way or another within 24 months. They won’t be completely solved despite Bill Gates’ optimistic prognostications, but they’ll be well under control to the point of being inconsequential.

People are signing up for email newsletters and marketing at astonishing rates. If email was on the way out, this is the single metric you’d expect to be falling as a precursor to the crash. Well, guess what? This metric is on the rise! My company alone is getting almost 80,000 people each day to sign up for our various email-related services. Many companies who sell direct to consumers online are generating upwards of 25% of their revenue via email. Those are not exactly the signs of a sick medium.

The email industry will not allow itself go the way of the typewriter (by the way, you will note, there was never really a “typewriter industry” the way that email has turned into its own sector). There are simply too many companies, with too much at stake, with too much capital to invest and too much reward to be gained, to permit obsolesence.

For those of you who know that my company Return Path is in the email business, you may say that my comments are self-serving, and I suppose that’s true. I’m always open to a disruptive technology, but changing human behavior is much more difficult than replacing floppy disks with DVDs or hard drives, and at this point, email as a viable communication medium is much less about the technology than about human behavior. It takes a “super disruptive” technology to make that fundamental a change.

Perhaps the writer of that op-ed should think about another technology with much grizzlier characteristics that would be sure to put it on the verge of extinction. The technology is dirty. It’s smelly. It’s terrible for the environment. Some say it’s imperling the future of the planet. All it tries to do is a simple thing, but it can cost people who live at the U.S. median income level as much as 15% of their net income every year (all headier issues than those created by email). We all generally refer to that technology as the automobile. Does anyone think that the cars is going away soon?

As for the comparison of the typewriter to email, I’ll quote Twain again: “History doesn’t repeat itself – at best it sometimes rhymes.”