Is this the end of email?

Fotolia_26948991_XS241x173.jpgOutlook tells me that, among my 2,000 emails not filed in a folder for safe keeping, are over 200 emails that haven't even been opened. Sender and subject lines don't have enough attraction: this is because I get a lot of unwanted email.

Why? I've been a journalist for many years so I'm on countless PR lists. My email address is on the web so spiders find it and add it to spam lists. And I have a corporate email address so I'm included in email round robins regarding pension entitlements, Christmas parties and charity fundraising.

And, of the 1,800 emails that have been opened, how many have been actioned, or flagged for follow-up? I could spend days on end digging through this unstructured data, and somewhere in there is a workflow.

If I was my own CEO, I'd ditch email, though I'm not sure what I would replace it with.

Atos chief takes bold steps to curb email

Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos and formerly CEO of France Telecom, believes that email is clogging up Atos' arteries. He plans to ban staff from using emails internally within just 18 months, arguing that they waste time and that most messages sent and received are irrelevant. Breton would prefer his staff to use instant messaging and a social networking-style interface instead.

Email hasn't always been around. Early Internet-dwellers used Bulletin Board systems to communicate, before Eudora bought us private email. Now, with a move to intranet-based communications, private chat zones, instant messaging and external services like Skype, is it possible email is losing its lustre?

Breton thinks it is. His staff spend between 5-20 hours a week just handling emails. He doesn't think they should. The information deluge is getting too much, and it's time to bring it all under control, he says. Worse, he reckons just one in twenty emails received each day by the average tech employee is actually useful.

Overload in figures

There's statistics which seem to back him up:
- 294 billion emails are sent per day (Radicati Group, 2010)
- Over 35% of UK smartphone users check their work email address in their free time. 10% do so while on holidays (Firstsource Solutions, July 2011)
- Only 11% of 11 to 19 year olds use email, but 90% prefer social media (

Breton's not the only one to make a move from email. Phones 4U chief executive, John Caudwell, banned email in 2004. He noted the need to get workers "off the keyboards, get face-to-face or on the phone with colleagues."

Breton has already begun using his new system. If they need him, employees can visit him where he is, call him or "send him an SMS," he said. The focus, is on clear communication.

Perhaps it is time for a change. Think about how many of the messages you receive are unwanted, useless or spam. An astonishing 90% of all the 294 billion daily emails are nothing but spam and viruses - not all of them are caught in spam filters.

For Atos, the email ban isn't to take effect until 2014 - and will only extend to the company's internal chatter. Email will still be used for external communications.

There are precedents. Intel and Australia’s science agency CSIRO have previously experimented with “no email” days as they try to encourage different forms of communication. The results of those attempts have been limited: "No Email Fridays lead to more Email Mondays,” Gartner analyst Matt Cain, told the Financial Times.

Email management tools

It's forces like this which foster the emergence of email management tools. While any user can set up a priority inbox, these new tools attempt to analyse and guess which emails might be essential. You see this kind of thing within GMail's priority email box.

How will Atos replace email internally? It is testing social networking alternatives; Atos Wiki; document management system, Livelink; Office Communicator; Internet telephony, video conferencing and application sharing and an internal tool called FISH.

Gartner has previously predicted that up to 20% of companies already expect to replace email with social networking style communications by 2014.

“The rigid distinction between email and social networks will erode. Email will take on many social attributes, such as contact brokering while social networks will develop richer email capabilities,” said Matt Cain, research vice president at Gartner.

Interest in social systems for internal presence and discussion was originally prompted by the success of Facebook or Twitter, but business centric socmed applications are gaining traction such as Yammer, Socialtext and Salesforce Chatter.

Yammer seems the emerging champion. It is being used by over three million users in 80,000 companies worldwide, including 80% of the Fortune 500. Scaleable, Yammer has proved itself easy to use and secure, and now has partnerships with SharePoint, Salesforce and NetSuite.

So is this it for email?

It seems unlikely, but it's clear that there is an emerging demand for a wider communicative and collaborative toolkit for many corporate users. This means it is likely email will shrink - but not disappear - in importance, despite the emergence of self-styled "no email" companies. Meanwhile, for serious productivity, communication is becoming 360-degree, comprising the immediacy of instant messaging with the collaborative power of Sharepoint and the group-focused advantages of Facebook.

Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.