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The Future of E-mail

With the emergence of so many communications options, does e-mail still make sense?

How often do you rely on e-mail to exchange information electronically with co-workers, customers, and suppliers? Chances are that three years ago, you would have said 100% of the time.

But such widespread penetration is open to poaching, and employees now have a variety of ways to exchange information with others. Instant messaging has become commonly accepted in many corporations, SMS is quite popular with some folks, and business social networking sites, such as, have garnered significant acceptance recently. So does the rise of these new communications channels mean that e-mail eventually will go the way of the dodo?

The plethora of communication choices emerged over the past few years and each of the options have their own special appeal. Instant messaging offers a more timely communications alternative than e-mail, where messages can sit for days, even weeks, before being opened. If one needs a quick answer to a simple question, then instant messaging usually is the best alternative.

Initially, SMS was designed to help company executives circumvent astronomical cellular phone charges. Recently, it has evolved into a quick and easy method of sending a business cohort a short note.

While one can debate the appropriateness of the content and the motives of certain members at times, consumer social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, have gained mainstream acceptance. So, it's not surprising that business social networking sites have also been popping up. These closed communities offer their users a simple, secure method of exchanging information.

One of the nice things with the different alternatives is the absence of spam. Unfortunately, e-mail has become a hub for hackers, who want to show off their technical skills. Recently, organized crime has become more of a force in the spam arena. They developed a series of get-rich-quick schemes and have also leveraged spam as an entry point into collecting and then misusing individuals’ personal financial information. As a result, estimates are spam represents 80% to more than 90% of all e-mail messages. Consequently, some businesspeople are flocking to these new communications options to rid themselves of the tedious task of constantly hitting the delete button.

The battle between spammers and vendors has been a game of leapfrog, with the spammers now far ahead of the vendors. While a silver bullet has not yet appeared, there is hope that someday the industry and law enforcement can work together to at least tighten up the spam spigot in the future.

In addition, the new spam-free communications havens may be short lived. Richi Jennings, an industry analyst with Ferris Research, noted that once other communications options gain significant traction, they too become targets for spammers. He is right: there have been a few instances where hackers turned their attention to instant messaging.

Another reason why e-mail will continue to be a popular communication option is the large volume of e-mail messages generated. Market research firm IDC estimates that businesses generate 97 billion e-mail messages each year. Even accounting for the widespread prevalence of spam, a communications option that generates billions of messages each year has built itself up quite an impressive foundation.

Because so many individuals have e-mail accounts, it provides users with the most likely platform to reach a wide range of other executives. Count me among those users who find instant messaging more annoying (the ping sounds whenever I am on working on a story at deadline) than helpful. Also to become a bona fide SMS user, one has to learn a new language, something not everyone is willing to do, IMHO.

Unlike the alternatives, e-mail is easy to use. Users have become quite familiar with the different products on the market, so sending a message to another person often requires a simple point-and-click. E-mail has also been gaining more functionality. There was a time when this communication option did not work well with complex graphic or video files. That is no longer the case as many e-mail systems now handle video as easily as text.

In sum, new communications channels have emerged, they appeal to different segments of users, and they will be in used at times instead of e-mail. However, e-mail still has the broadest range of supporters and will continue to be the primary communications media for most businesspersons for the foreseeable future.

How often do you use your e-mail system? What other communications channels do you rely on? Do you foresee a time when they will have more of your attention than your e-mail system?

Paul Korzeniowski is a Sudbury, Mass.-based freelance writer who has been writing about networking issues for two decades. His work has appeared in Business 2.0, Entrepreneur, Investors Business Daily, Newsweek, and InformationWeek. He can be reached here.

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