[sociate] Email = the cockroach

  • From: "Jerry Michalski" <jerry@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <sociate@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Mon, 22 May 2006 12:18:42 -0400

ation> recent post describing his startup Tabblo's premature
u-can-finally-share-photos-on-the-net-171969.php> outing on Valleywag
reminded me that email is a survivor:

...if you look at the numbers, by far the biggest photo-sharing service out
there is still email. For the most part, people find that what is out there
does not add enough value to merit being used instead of just attaching a
bunch of pictures to an email and hitting send (and this despite all of the
associated mailserver hell).

Email still wins most tech battles.

The millions of dollars corporations have spent on knowledge management
systems, specialized collaboration tools, file-sharing systems, groupware
solutions, workflow applications and other once-hot tech categories have all
too often been wasted. People balk at using separate KM applications. They
end up attaching PowerPoints to emails and whipping them around the
corporate network. (Then they end up helplessly searching said network for
the latest version or a specific slide. So it goes.)

The problem is congenital: Our overreliance on email is a birth defect of
the "personal computing" revolution, which somehow completely failed to
integrate the social aspects of Doug Engelbart's famous
<http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/1968Demo.html> 1968 demo (see my
<http://www.sociate.com/blog/archives/2005_08_01_archive.html> earlier post
on this). Although they successfully implemented Doug's overlapping windows
and scrolling mice, both Jobs and Gates were completely blind to networking
and the social side of computing that Doug demonstrated. Both had to learn
those lessons slowly and painfully.

This congenital condition means that group functionality is typically
grafted on to the dominant personal productivity tools, awkwardly, rather
than being built in. So we end up having to buy and install "groupware"
capabilities, or even use tools and interfaces that are completely separate
from our everyday tools in order to "harvest knowledge." A few tools try to
infer knowledge from our everyday work products, but few of them seem to
achieve great value.

It's been 22 years since the Mac's debut in
<http://www.uriahcarpenter.info/1984.html> 1984. Why isn't
platform-independent screen sharing just baked into all machines yet? Why
are wikis, which allow collaborative editing, such an anomaly? And so late?
I'll come back to this issue in future posts.

There is one promising trend that could kill off email.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_Y> Millennials, interestingly
enough, see email only as a way to communicate with their parents and
teachers. They communicate with one another through IM, cellphones, online
games and sites such as  <http://www.myspace.com/> MySpace and
<http://www.facebook.com/> Facebook. Voicemail? Naaah!

So when us old farts die off, then maybe the next generation will drive a
stake through the heart of email. Maybe.

This is a funny issue for me. I love IM. When I
<http://sociate.com/About_Jerry_Michalski/Writing/writing.shtml> first wrote
about it for Release 1.0 in January of 1997, I was piqued; by June, I was
convinced this was the future of the phone interface (which hasn't happened
quite yet) and much more.

But when I hear about kids' IM-centric world, my first response is, "how on
earth do they track what they promised to do, or where they said they would
meet?" (My second response: "wouldn't life be wonderful without all those
messages haunting me?") It turns out many kids look things up in the IM log
files, which serve the same purpose as your email archive or chock-full

I wonder: is the log file now an important feature when kids pick IM
clients? Probably not. More likely it's just which IM their buddies use.

The other thing I wonder is how kids handle the constant interruptions.

More broadly, I wonder if this IM/cellphone behavior represents a long-term
shift toward real-time communications, or instead a reaction to today's
rather primitive tools, which will cause our eventual tools to settle
somewhere between IM and email, whatever that might look like. After all, in
an always-connected world, who needs
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Store_and_forward> store-and-forward? It was a
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kludge> kludge to work around cranky, slow
networks back in the day.

This may take some time.

Not many "serious" (read: older) software developers are Gen Y yet, so I
don't see experiments in the serious software world. And the major IM
platforms are mostly private, a bit too much like mobile phone software
platforms, so they're not inclined to experiment this way. And they're not
quite open enough (Jabber protocols notwithstanding) for Gen Y-ers to mod
directly, aside from making spiffy
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skin_%28computing%29> skins, which has to get
boring after a while.

Email is the acid test. If some new way of collaborating is to take over, it
will do so at the expense of email. And not a moment too soon. 

posted by Jerry at
3990> 12:18 PM

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