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The Future of E-mail

By Gary Anthes
June 12, 2006 12:00 PM ET
"We thought if we could put all that together, we'd have a great long-term solution," Goodman says. "Obviously, it's a very ambitious plan, and I don't think we ever thought it would happen quickly."

Elsewhere at Microsoft, researchers are working on a prototype called MailScope that monitors e-mail routes and alerts users when significant delays are expected. If MailScope sees persistent delays between, say, Microsoft.com and Berkeley.edu, it warns users on those servers that delays are likely, much as a traffic report notifies drivers of congested routes.

In a related Microsoft project called SureMail, when a message is sent, a system posts a tamperproof notification to a table somewhere on the Internet. E-mail recipients periodically query the table and match notifications with messages received. If they find a notification for which there is no message, they know the message has been lost. Microsoft calls these "silent" losses because they so often go undetected. In controlled experiments over two months, using a variety of e-mail systems and carriers, Microsoft found that one in 140 e-mail messages disappeared without a trace. Delays averaged four minutes but lasted as long as 27 hours.

Despite the extensive research and development, some observers say technology can never completely cure e-mail's ills. Economic and regulatory tools will be needed as well, they say.

"Ultimately, I believe there will be a pay-per-message type of service that charges to ensure that e-mail is spam-free," says CIO Matthew Lynch at ShopKo Stores Inc. in Green Bay, Wis. E-mail carriers will charge companies a penny or two per message and will in exchange certify those messages as legitimate, he says. Lynch also predicts "stronger legislation around this topic."

A combination of technology, policy and market measures will keep e-mail among the top of all corporate applications, most users say. "E-mail will continue to be an integral form of communication," says Matthew Marks, head of integrated user services at Aetna Inc. "The capability to quickly and easily distribute a message with an attachment -- documents, links, objects, etc. -- to a large, dispersed audience with tracking and audit cannot be matched by IM, fax or snail mail."

2. E-mail -- just one of the many communications streams in the workplace -- will become part of a "puddle," or "activity thread."

Although e-mail seems unlikely to be supplanted by alternatives, the job of the IT manager is nevertheless complicated by the emergence of other options.

E-mail is in its "pimply adolescence," says futurist Paul Saffo at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. The problems of spam, phishing and e-mail-borne malware will be conquered, he predicts. In the meantime, he cautions, "you can't treat e-mail in isolation. All of our communications forms are melting away, and we are creating new things out of the puddle of old stuff."

Richard Golden, vice president for IT infrastructure at Circuit City Stores Inc. in Richmond, Va., says these threats will cause corporations to augment their technology defenses with strong policy defenses. He says it's relatively easy to protect e-mail systems with spam filters, virus scanners and the like because the systems are well defined, with discrete messages going from Point A to Point B through corporate IT assets.

"But things are converging into a world that is not as clearly definable as a corporate e-mail system," he says. "I think you'll see more policies about things like blogging, for instance. As the lines blur on the means for communications, it's going to require more focus on the information conveyed, regardless of the means used to convey it."

IBM Research is looking for ways to combine e-mail with other functions and integrate it seamlessly into users' daily activities. "It's not enough to help people manage their e-mail; it's important to help them manage their work," says Dan Gruen, a research scientist at the company's facility in Cambridge, Mass. That involves "connecting all the communications and information feeds around a topic or activity," he says.

For example, an IBM Research proto-type called Activity Explorer is a collaboration tool that pulls together e-mail messages, synchronous communication such as instant messages, screen images, files, folders and to-do lists. A project team can establish "activity threads" containing these feeds and can switch easily between asynchronous and real-time collaboration. An activity thread might include the messages, chats and files exchanged among members of a team that's writing a contract bid, for instance.

A more advanced experimental tool from IBM called Unified Activity Manager does all that and more, linking into other corporate applications such as workflow systems. It not only combines the elements of a current activity but also pulls in those elements from past similar activities. These notions of "activity-centric collaboration" will show up in the next release of Lotus Notes, dubbed Hannover, which is expected to ship next year, Gruen says.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Research has developed a way to combine e-mail, files, Web pages, calendar entries, to-do lists and other materials into one searchable archive. Called "Stuff I've Seen," the prototype uses MS Search to index a user's important content and then offers it through a unified interface with sorting, filtering, previews and thumbnail views.



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