Email or Email Client?

January 12, 2011

Great article from 4spires,  Email Is Flawed For Managing Work – Transformation Is Coming.

Despite our collective understanding that email is flawed as a workflow management tool, we are firmly entrenched in its use.  What is needed is a generic solution that mirrors the simplicity and flexibility of email but adds better workflow tracking and management reporting features.

As I wrote in my earlier post, Email vs. social networking in your workplace, I would separate the term “email” as a messaging system/infrastructure (as defined by RFC822, RFC2821 (smtp), RFC2045 (mime), RFC3501 (imap), …) from “email” as email client software for reading/sending/managing email messages, implementing only a specific use model, usually dated 10-15 years ago. And so when it comes to the email clients I really agree with the article, most email clients are outdated and have not kept up with the workflow management requirements so it is obvious that new generation email management apps need to be developed.

Email as the messaging infrastructure is actually quite solid in my opinion and can be leveraged quite successfully by those new generation tools. I am probably quite “old school” but I love email. BTW, see the comment for that article about the recent Skype outage, could this have ever happened to email and paralyze millions communication channels? What I believe is that simple and open wins and email is simple and based on open standards so there could simply be a better email client that is also designed to enhance the workflow management.

I have to admit though that I am quite biased in my opinion because we’re working on a tool like that ourselves. We simply want to leverage the email based collaboration model that most organizations use today (many of which are MS Outlook based). I think most organizations have chosen to use email for a good reason (flexibility, simplicity, ubiquity, you name it …), so lets just go with what already seems natural and enhance the experience.

You must have seen the Dec 6 article in the SF Chronicle entitled “Transformation of e-mail is under way“, talking about Facebook’s move into email. The last few paragraphs of the article really summarize the message:

That consumer-driven demand is part of the reason Facebook’s first stab at a unified messaging system is noteworthy, said analyst Rob Koplowitz of Forrester Research Inc. Facebook has more than 500 million users, and they are increasingly bringing social networking into the workplace, a trend that has accelerated in the past five years.

With a business communications system built around a social network rather than just e-mail, employees can learn about projects their co-workers are doing or check profiles to find who might have the expertise they seek.

“It’s surprising how much we can share that we don’t share today,” he said. “The tools we have were all designed to think security first, share later.”

The need for e-mail, though, won’t go away, but a program that just does e-mail may not be around in 10 years, he said.

“You’ll still have a messaging engine, but that engine will probably be wrapped around other communication and collaboration technologies,” he said.

This and other articles often talk about email, that as a messaging system it may not survive. I think these articles are really talking about email applications (email clients) that are indeed quite obsolete (MS Outlook, Thunderbird, KMail, Yahoo Mail, take any of them …). Although you probably wont say that about GMail, on the contrary, it is quite refreshing – email threads presented almost as chats to encourage dialogs. I am actually very surprised that Google killed its project Wave which was taking GMail even further in the direction of email integrated with work place social environment.

Anyway, those are mostly email clients that are being blamed for their non-social implementations. And quite understandably, as most of them are >10yr old now. BUT the underlying email messaging system and infrastructure (as described by such protocols as RFC822, RFC2821 (smtp), RFC2045 (mime), RFC3501 (imap), …) are very solid, in my opinion. Many probably don’t realize that the whole web world has pretty much adopted MIME for content definitions, which was originally a standard for email message bodies. And what about the message transmission infrastructure, millions of SMTP servers across the Internet facilitating mail delivery, built to work around line failures and offline situations? I can’t believe we want to scratch all that.

As far as the email client apps go I definitely agree that they need to be updated and re-designed to accommodate new social collaboration needs, we are even building one app like that ourselves at Yoxel. But I am very intrigued with the question of the underlying infrastructure.  It is basically the question of “de-centralization” vs “centralization” . Do you like the idea of being locked in their cloud (Facebook, Twitter, Google, …) for all your messaging and collaboration needs or would you prefer a little more democracy and freedom where you continue to rely on the SMTP based Internet infrastructure not controlled by any one big company allowing a choice of alternative UI solutions (desktop and web-based)?


PS: For those who read the whole SF Gate article: It seems the Bugzilla bug-trackers I used in the past were a new generation social email apps because they sent email notifications inviting me to login and collaborate so I can easily say that they “layer enterprise social-networking on top of e-mail”. 🙂