The Problem with Email
CTO, REBOL Technologies
This is an original position paper published in February 2001 that accurately predicted a major transition in the communication marketplace.
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While email is now widely accepted, it only represents an embryonic stage that will over the next five years (by 2005) develop into entirely new forms of communications that more directly and efficiently suit the needs of businesses and organizations.
Email was invented in the 1970's by and for researchers and university professors. Although email adoption has grown by orders of magnitude since then, it is essentially the same system that it was 30 years ago. As a system, email is similar to US postal delivery. It is a general delivery mechanism for anyone to send anyone anything.
A great deal of business communication and workflow is centered around email, but we question whether email is the ultimate long term solution for communication and workflow processes. While email is a good method for anyone in the world to contact you, that's also email's biggest problem. Most communication, both business and personal, does not come from just anyone, it comes from other members of your organization, partners, or team. It comes from "important people".
Email as a business communication mechanism has many inherent flaws:
- It's totally insecure
Confidential business documents sent over email are not confidential. These documents can be read both inside and outside of your organization. For example, your system administrator can read the latest draft of your strategic acquisition agreement or medical patient information.
- It's too open
Our mailboxes are filling with junk mail, and the situation is getting worse every month. Due to the inherent general delivery design of email, this problem cannot be prevented, even with the best designed email filters.
- Email can be dangerous
Computer viruses are most commonly delivered through email because there is no certification mechanism for email senders. In Microsoft Outlook, just clicking on an email can initiate a new virus.
- Delivery is not guaranteed
Just like postal mail, email may be delivered, or maybe not. Take the recent example of Harvard acceptance letters that were deleted by AOL, thinking they were junk mail.
- Email is not real time
There is too much delay to have an active conversation, which is why more and more people are turning to instant messaging solutions (which also have their own security problems).
- It lacks ubiquitous access
It is problematic for most users to access their email from all locations, such as at home or while on the road. This is the primary reason why web-based email became popular.
If you consider email for managing workflow, it has a number of additional problems:
- It's a poor way to share files
They don't arrive in nicely organized directories that allow both parties see identical file and directory structures.
- There's no application framework
Email is for message-oriented content. It has no concept of a standard framework to deliver active applications.
- It's platform dependent
Many organizations have members (such as development or graphics groups) who use systems other than Microsoft Windows and Outlook, which means they are left out of certain activities.
- It's a haphazard workflow method
Is email really the best possible driver of corporate and organizational workflow?
Email is adequate for communicating with the world-at-large, a general delivery mailbox, but most business and organizational communications is oriented toward a relatively small teams of working relationships. Using email to drive internal business workflow is like running a business based on receiving US postal mail as it arrives at the mailbox.