The Technology Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present

We are approaching not only the end of the year but also, if you start counting at ‘1’ rather than ‘0’, the end of the millennium’s first decade. It is therefore timely to consider not only the developments which may be influential for the next decade (for which I feel that large-scale collaborative and communications technologies will result in Collective Intelligence being significant for the sector, which will be helped by a continuing trend towards Openness) and the new technologies of a few years ago which were initially dismissed as irrelevant and unsustainable, but are now used by many mainstream users (in December 2009 I asked 2009 – The Year Of Twitter?; I now wonder when not having a Twitter account will be regarded as odd) but also technologies which have been widely used in the past but now seem to be in decline.

In this post I’ll avoid temptations to be speculative about emerging and emerged technologies and reflect on an aspect of IT which I first started using in, if I recall correctly, 1983 and have used on a variety of platforms, from Prime and VAX mini-computers, Multics and IBM mainframes, through to today’s PC and Apple Macintosh desktop computers and Android and Apple phones and tablet computers. I’ve also used the default mail application on various platforms as well as Pegasus, Eudora, Outlook, Thunderbird and K-9 email clients. We can truly day that email has proved itself to be popular, ubiquitous, platform and application independent and clearly long-living. Email, we can safely say, provides an example in which the IT profession should be pleased to have delivered such a well-liked and robust service.

But is this really the case? Are we starting to see weak signals which suggest that email may be in decline? Might we be in the early stages of a move away from use of email towards an environment in which other forms of collaboration, communication and dissemination tools may provide benefits which email may fail to provide?

“Email is Dying”

At the ILI 2005 conference in London in October 2005 I gave a talk entitled “Email Must Die!” in which I, rather provocatively, argued that if we information professionals, in particular, were well-placed to appreciate the implications of the suggestion that  “E-mail is where knowledge goes to die” and should be welling to take a lead in exploiting a variety of Web 2.0 tools which were starting to emerge at the time which could address the various well-known deficiencies of email: the spam; the duplication of information; office politics based on use of cc: and bcc: the lack of structure; the difficulties of content reuse; etc.

A subsequent Ariadne article with the rather more hesitant question “Must Email Die?” discussed these issues in more depth and outlined how technologies such as blog, wikis, instant messaging, RSS, Skype and other VOIP systems could all replace various uses for which email has traditionally been used.

Two years later, in May 2007, a post entitled “Email IS Dying” referenced an article on “Firms to embrace Web 2.0 tools” published in the Computing newsletter from an original article published in a Gartner report. This article reminded me of a UCISA Poll on Instant Messaging published in 2004 in which a correspondent from the University of Bath stated that “mail seen by younger people to be ‘boring’ ‘full of spam’, IM and SMS immediacy preferred“.

The Gartner report described how:

MySpace and FaceBook are the most successful community environments on the planet because they have pulled people away from email, which is the one thing that nothing else has managed to do so far’.

Facebook has clearly developed significantly in its user base and functionality since Gartner published the report in 2007 although, on the other hand, MySpace has declined significantly. Perhaps the uncertainty as to who would ‘win’ in the battle over the social networking environments – a battle which is irrelevant for email users for which application independence has always been a key feature – has been a barrier to takeup of alternatives to email?

Are Email Lists on Life-Support?

The talks and articles which were presented and published over five years ago where meant to highlight to both early adopters and policy makers that there may be significant changes in the offing, which advance planning will need to consider. At the time the suggestions of a growth in importance of instant messaging (in itself, not a new technology, but one which had previously had little significant role in mainstream university activities) was meant to highlight a possible need to change institutional acceptable use policies which may previously have banned instant messaging services as having no useful role in support teaching and learning or research activities.  I suspect that use of instant messaging technologies is now widely permitted across the sector, perhaps because of an acknowledgment of the value of instant messaging, but also possibly due to the difficulty in banning such technologies, which seems to be now provided within many networked environments.

But although there is a need for advocacy and highlighting potential changes there is also a need to monitor changes in order to see if predictions are coming true or not.

Graph of JISCMail usageIn June 2010 a post on The Decline in JISCMail Use Across the Web Management Community documented evidence on 10 years use of two JISCMail lists which clearly demonstrated the decline in usage since about 2004 (illustrated in accompanying image).

A follow-up survey which explored use of JISCMail by the Dublin Core community was described in a post on DCMI and JISCMail: Profiling Trends of Use of Mailing Lists. This showed that although the overall numbers of lists is still growing, the total volume of traffic has been in decline since 2005. That survey caused me to speculate that new lists which have been created are failing to stimulate discussion and debate but are merely used to replicate posting advertising events, job vacancies and similar broadcast announcements across a range of lists. Although the limited interface options to JISCMail lists meant that I was not able to validate this speculation, in a post entitled Are Mailing Lists Now Primarily A Broadcast Medium? I did discover some small-scale evidence which backs up this assertion for a number of lists to which I subscribe.

Email lists are clearly still being used but evidence is starting to question their value. But at least email lists work across platforms. Or do they?

Are Email Lists Really Interoperable?

Client Limitations

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek post by Scott Wilson describes a Revolutionary messaging technology will challenge FB, Twitter, IM which:

  • It works on all kinds of devices and across all networks
  • You can search, read and respond to messages even when you’re offline
  • Works with intelligent filtering services
  • You can send and receive messages with anyone on any network, not just the same service provider you use
  • The server code is open source so you can run your own
  • Completely distributed architecture with no central server or hub node
  • Uses open standards for pretty much everything
  • Clients for all platforms including mobile, even TV – and anyone can make their own client as the API isn’t proprietary

Of course Scott is describing email. Scott goes on to add; that:

However, not everyone is convinced yet and think that we should stick with proprietary messaging silos tied to one service provider such as Facebook and Twitter, despite the obvious risk of these services being discontinued, monetized, tracking your communications for nefarious purposes, and spamming you with advertising at any opportunity. 

But is email really as interoperable as has been suggested? I used to think that email was interoperable – until I started to use email clients on a variety of platforms.

I’ve experienced particular problems with reading digests of messages from JISCMail lists. This is my preferred way of using mailing lists, as it helps to minimise the numbers of messages arriving in my incoming mail folder. However despite being able to view messages successfully using the digest’s MIME interface in the past, since moving to new email clients I have found that either such messages can’t be viewed (on an Apple Macintosh or iPod Touch email client) or have to be viewed by Notepad (using Thunderbird on an MS Windows platform).

HTML and Email

A W3C Note on Conventions for use of HTML in emailwas published way back in January 1998. However it wasn’t until May 2007 that the W3C organised a W3C HTML Mail Workshop and the minutes failed to provide details of any actions which arose from the meeting. It does appear that, despite the paper on Web standards: a must for html email which was presented at the meeting, there is a lack of agreed standards for how HTML should be used in email, resulting in IT Service departments, such as Glasgow University’s “recommend[ing] sending ‘plain text’ email instead of HTML or rich text email, particularly if sending email to a large distribution list“. Despite suggestions that we should we moving towards use of more semantically rich content we do seem to often be discarding the simple structural elements provided in HTML when we make use of email.

Technical Challenges in Reusing Email Content

As well as the lack of visual clues which can be presented by HTML, I am also aware that software developers who wish to process content held in email archives can find it difficult to process the variety of ways in which messages and accompanying attachments can be stored.

Email has been described as the place “where knowledge goes to die“. A cynic might also regarded mailing lists as a DRM system which makes it harder for content to be reused!

Email is Happy in its Rest Home?

Two years ago Esther Steinfeld asking people to Stop Saying Email is Dying. It’s Not. But last week an article on the Financial Times Web site (free subscription needed to view article) reported on the story about how:

When Thierry Breton, chief executive of Atos, said the IT services company would ban use of internal email by 2014, it caused a sensation across the media, with commentators describing the idea as either “brave”, “stupid” or doomed to failure.

but went on to point out that:

a number of companies have been quietly moving away from using email as the primary way of communicating within the company.

The article described how companies such as Capgemini are making use of social networking tools such as Yammer to replace some of the functionality traditionally provided by email, with Capgemini stating that “it has reduced its internal email traffic by 40 per cent in the 18 months since staff began using Yammer“.  Capgemini, together with companies such as Klick and Atos continue to use email for communicating with people outside the companies and expect that email will continue to exist in some form for many years to come. However email management consultant Monica Seely suggested that “In three to five years we will see a more pluralistic landscape with messages being transferred to some kind of social media platform. But email will remain a bedrock of businesses for some time to come.

A post on the Social Media in Organisations blog entitled The “End” of Email: Reflections from a Digital Era Thinker also highlighted “the recent statement made by Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos, about the “elimination” of email at the company [which] churned up quite a bit of controversy in cyberspace” and suggested that “It All Boils Down to Leadership“.

The (Technology) Ghosts of Christmas Yet To Come

This post was initially entitled “Reflections on the Slow Death of Email“. But since there have been 10 responses in May 200714 responses in June 20103 responses in December 2010 and 8 responses in May 2011 to previous posts on this topic, rather than revisiting the discussions on the flaws and merits of email we need to accept that there will be a divergence in views on the merits of email and on the merits of promoting changes or accepting user preferences.

It should also be clear that a move towards making greater use of richer alternatives to email isn’t to imply a matter of leadership, as was suggested above. In the commercial sector companies may find it easier to enforce policy decisions about technologies, as was seen when WH Smiths made the business decision to stop selling LPs. In the public sector, however, there is a need to support sectoral needs rather than being driven by purely commercial interests. And since it is clear that there is no clear support for a move away from email, the suggestion that it boils down to leadership does seem incorrect.

For me, therefore, a broader question which considerations of the slow decline in email raises is “What technologies do we have today which we might like to replace and how do we, if at all, address a reluctance to change?

An example of a technology which some people expected to experience a sharp decline was Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office applications. Back in the mid to late 1990s I can recall people arguing that due to factors including:

  • The cost of these products
  • The proprietary nature of the products
  • Legal moves within the EU and the US based on possible illegal selling practices
  • The growing maturity of open source alternatives such as Linux and Star Office and Open Office

we would see Microsoft decline in importance.

This clearly didn’t happen. Microsoft is still around but is now facing other threats including a renewed popularity of Apple Macintosh computers and a growth in mobile devices, including smart phones and tablet computers, with Apple and Android providing the main threats.

But writing off Microsoft can be easy (and tempting) to do. It will be more interesting to think about other areas of technology in which we might expect innovations to replace existing well-established products and services, but subsequently find that users are content with the existing working patterns, even if flawed, and remain unconvinced that it is worth making a change. I’d welcome your suggestions.