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Email May Not Be Dead, But it Sure Isn't What it Used to Be

"You've got mail?" Yeah, so what?

Is 2011 the year email died? The simple answer to that oversimplified question is no. But the world does seem to be moving on, and like other media that have been superseded by something new it's evolving into something different and possibly less dominant.

We use email now for newsletters, or to receive bulk-mail ads, or to send attachments, or at work when we want the formal structure and topic threads to be saved for posterity. But with friends, family, acquaintances, lovers? Text messaging on our phones. Status updates on Facebook. Personal blogs. Or micro-blogging on Twitter.

While bloggers and columnists have argued about the impending death of email for years now, this year may in fact be different. Consider the evidence:

— Email spam declined dramatically this year, according to two recent reports by security firm Symantec and networking giant Cisco. While a big part of that decline can be attributed to the takedown of two notorious botnets, there is evidence that spammers are, like the rest of us, moving on.

Spammers are in it for the money, and email has become less effective at that. So the number of spam emails sent globally has dropped from a peak of 379 billion daily in July 2010 to 124 billion daily last month, according to Cisco. Spam is now at the lowest level since 2008. But Symantec says targeted malware attacks are dramatically rising.

Also rising are spam, malware and phishing attempts using Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. Why? Not only are people gravitating to social networks for communication, but they pay more attention to the messages there and are more likely to respond.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook, implied in a statement last month that email is dying—on the same day that Facebook introduced a new stand alone messaging app for smartphones.

— The rise of text messaging continues, especially in the under-30 set. A Pew Research study in September found that nearly three-quarters of us use text messaging on our phones, with an average 41.5 messages sent or received daily. Fully 95 percent of cell phone users age 18-29 use text messaging, and they send an average 87.7 messages a day.

When it comes to the youngest age group, 18-24, 95 percent own a cell phone, 97 percent of those use their phone for text messaging, and they send or receive an average 109.5 messages a day.

As the young grow up, the habit is likely to stick. The immediacy, brevity and portability of text messages better fits our fast-moving lifestyles than the more structured, formal nature of email.

— Some business leaders are beginning to discourage or even ban the use of email. At Atos, a French-based international IT services company employing more than 74,000 people in 42 international offices, CEO Thierry Breton has announced a goal of zero emails by 2013. “We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching on our personal lives,” Breton said earlier this month. At Volkswagen, the company decided last week to stop routing emails to BlackBerry phones beginning a half-hour after an employee's shift ends until a half-hour before the next shift begins.

— Large business-to-business companies like Salesforce.com, Oracle and IBM are moving quickly to add social-networking functions both for internal business use and for interacting with customers. Again, businesses are recognizing that not only is that where the customers are, but their employees, too, and there are efficiencies to be gained by using a social-networking platform rather than endless email lists that aren't paid attention to.

The email system, which began to evolve into its current form back in 1971, decades before there was a World Wide Web, is truly a mess that never lived up to its potential.

Why is it, in 2011, that you can send a certified or registered letter by snail mail but not by email? Why is it, in 2011, that you can have a reasonable expectation of privacy if you send someone a letter through the U.S. Postal Service but not by unsecured email? It just doesn't make sense.

Some have suggested that the Postal Service should offer secure mail that can provide these services. In fact, the U.S. Inspector General issued a report last month offering that as a possible path to the future for the financially strapped agency.

The issues there are many, unfortunately. For one, the USPS is not exactly known for its technology prowess. It was late to the game on package tracking and, if it got into the email business, it would be late to the game there, too.

Another issue is trust. While one might trust the Postal Service with a sealed envelope, would you want to trust Big Brother with your email? That's unclear.

A third issue is the international reach of the Internet. How would a system be set up that is recognized outside of the U.S.?

Whatever the future for email, it's not likely to continue as what it was when it blossomed in the '90s as the primary method we used to communicate electronically. “You've got mail!” is so last century.

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