Thursday, December 22, 2011

Replacing Email?

In response to Brian Kelly, The (Technology) Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present and Christmas Yet To Come

While my perspective is admittedly limited, and while I can almost be legitimately referred to as an old stick-in-the-mud, I think my own experience is relevant.

Currently, email is by far and away the most common way people contact me. I'll get maybe two or three phone calls in a day, zero instant messages or texts, and about 200 emails. Granted, 150 of those are not useful emails. But the remainder still dwarfs what's left.

But OK, that's just me. My mobile phone is usually turned off and lost somewhere in the house, the battery drained. I don't use an instant messaging client because ICQ never worked with MSN, which never worked with AOL, etc, etc. But I do have active Facebook and Twitter accounts (from which I'll average a couple of messages a day) and I'm not *that* technologically archaic.

My newsletter statistics tell a similar story. My website gets a lot of views on the web - almost a million page views in the last six months - and the number of email recipients of my newsletter continues to grow slowly, now over 3300 a day and around 5000 for the weekly. My Facebook friends, meanwhile, which peaked at 3000 or so, have *dropped* to 1800 - many people don't want the newsletter in their social networking. And while the OLDaily Twitter account has almost 1500 subscribers, that's still less than a third of the number subscribing to my personal account. RSS as well remains strong, with something like 5000 (or it could be 10,000 - I don't have a good count, just Google Reader stats).

What does this tell me?

There may be a lot of traffic in social networks and instant messaging, but it's personal traffic, replacing what used to be accomplished with a quick phone call. I've never really been a phone call person, and today I'm not an instant messaging person.

And there are two other observations I would make:

First, it's not clear to me at least how successful Facebook and Twitter would be without email and the web. Especially the web. Both services depended a lot - and to a certain extent still depend - on email notifications to get off the ground. I would probably never visit Facebook unless an email notification reminded me that people want to friend me, or that someone has sent me a Facebook message (the same was true of twitter until I turned it off).

Second, a significant part of the traffic on Twitter and Facebook point to those very web contents that i also send by email (journalists say that most of that traffic points to professional news content, but I'm not sure the numbers would bear that out). RSS, email and the web are all different facets of the same content, at least when email is thought of from the perspective of email lists, as opposed to quick person-to-person messages.

When Google+ came out I thought that it might be a viable alternative to web or email (I'm sure Google thought so too - a Wave that works, I can imagine them saying to themselves). But with the same sort of limitations imposed on users as those by Facebook and Twitter - the walled-garden effect, with a clampdown on links out - Google+ is also aiming for the same personal traffic as the other services. There's a lot of such traffic - the telephone was successful, and so should be these services, over time.

But people do not want to use those channels for more formal communications, no more than they want to receive advertising or music over their telephones. These communications rely on what are being represented here as 'old' technologies - email and the web. Longer and more in-depth content will continue to be transmitted over these channels (or something similar, but not something like instant messaging or social networking).

So - as Kelly asks - what will replace email and/or RSS and/or the web in the future, if not Google+? Probably our best clues are found in iPhone and iPad apps. Though these platforms are not as open as the devices of the future will be, the sort of functionality found in apps will come to characterize what we will find in web pages and email messages in general (indeed, if one were to measure the app market side by side with with social networks or instant messaging, we would be tempted to rashly predict the death of the latter!).

We need to work out some things. These apps (or at least the data they run on) have to be interoperable. Though the walled-garden works for Apple now, in a wider market it will be unsustainable. Additionally, with the proliferation of mobile content that actually does something on your device, security will have to be dramatically improved (indeed, security is the paramount reason why Apple has employed the walled garden - it keeps the incidence of spam, virii and phishing way down, unlike (say) contemporary email.

The more formal content of the future will resemble the magazine apps of today, with built-in hooks to social networks (to support back-chatter) but also to live data, analytics, interactive media, smart functionality, game-like or simulated behaviour, and other goodies I can't even begin to think of today. Like web 2.0, in other words, but without the sensation of being tied together with duct tape and Javascript.

And while in some cases these new products are being displayed on completely new platforms (like iOS or Android) they will also be displayed on the good-old-web and delivered via RSS, email or personal subscription (which for all practical purposes are in this context indistinguishable from each other). They will not be displayed on the Facebook, Twitter or Google+ 'platforms', no more than you would read a magazine by radio.

People creating email, web and RSS products are already well into the design of corresponding apps. As these apps gain in popularity, the numbers of the 'traditional' services will decline. But the numbers in social networks or instant messages won't increase correspondingly - because social networks and instant messaging are not replacing email, the web and RSS, no matter what the numbers seem to show.

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