Email now and forever

Slack is fine for channel chats and Zoom is dandy for video, but for real business communications, you still can't beat email. That will never change.

Sometimes a story forces itself on me. First, I read a New York Times piece that raised a question: Could Gen Z free the world from email?. (The answer is no.) Then, I had a friend of a friend ask me if they could just replace email with Slack. The answer this time: Hell no.

Here's why.

First, there's a reason we've been using email for decades now. It just works. Really, it's that simple. In particular, the version of email that almost all of us use today, which is based on the Internet RFC-822 standard, works everywhere for everyone. You may work in Antarctica with an email domain ending in ".aq," but I can still send you an email with the address and my note will get to you in a few seconds.

It didn't used to be that way. One of my first jobs was helping run the Goddard Space Flight Center's email systems in the early 1980s. There, for my sins, I was on the help desk, and in those days there was no standard email addressing system; there were over a dozen. Adding insult to injury, they couldn't talk directly to each other. You could get a message from, say, your Internet account to your buddy on BITNET or your business partner on MCI Mail, but to do it, you'd package your message so that it could pass through a gateway between the networks. It was not easy. (And let’s not even talk about UUCP and X.400 email systems.) 

Then, in a miracle of common sense over standards, everyone agreed that RFC 822-style addressing and message transfers made perfect sense. It is today that we all have our_name@this_company.whatever addresses.

Another advantage of this approach: RFC 822 is an open standard. You don't have to pay anyone to use it. Yes, you probably need to pay for the account itself, but no one pays the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to use the standard.

And, this is where the people who answered the Creative Strategies' 2020 survey on how people work together online missed the boat. Sure, younger people may talk to each other and work with each other using Slack, Instagram, and Zoom calls. But all of those are proprietary programs, and the history of tech has taught us that these platforms don't last.

For example, it wasn't that long ago that everyone used AOL IM, Facebook, and Skype to talk to each other. Of those, AOL IM is dead, Facebook is losing its appeal to Generation Z, and Microsoft is replacing Skype with Teams.

Others, according to this study, now work together the most using Google Docs, Zoom, and Apple's iMessage. Okay, fine. But in addition to my earlier objection to proprietary platforms, what happens when your company partners with a business that uses Zoho or Microsoft 365 for shared documents? Or prefers Google Meet or Cisco Webex to Zoom? For that matter, since iMessage is completely tied to Apple, how are you going to talk to someone whose company uses only Samsung phones?

Email, on the other hand, is universal. It runs on everything. I know Outlook doesn't look much like Gmail or whatever your email client of choice, but it all works the same way and the messages, short of failures, always get there.

What's not to like? Well, spam for one thing. But that's why we have spam filtering. I run SpamAssassin on my business servers, but there are many other easier-to-run anti-spam programs. These include MailWasher, which you can use on PCs or servers; ZeroSpam/HornetSecurity, a cloud-based service; and ContentCatcher, a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) email spam detector. Many of these programs include phishing and malware protection defenses.

Another problem is that we tend to get buried with email floods. The answer again is filtering. Most email programs include tools that allow you to sort messages depending on who sent them, whether the sender is known, or by subject matter. With a little thought, you can turn these to your advantage. For example, just by sorting mail into "Mail from people inside your company" and "Mail from outside your company," you're more than halfway to cutting your email to a manageable load.

Email also has another fundamental advantage over messaging and audio and video conferencing. Email enables people to work together regardless of work schedule or time zone. And it readily lends itself to archiving and record-keeping.

These two reasons alone ensure that for now, and forever onward, email will remain the primary way business communications get done. Instant messaging programs, video-conferencing platforms, they come, they go. But none can replace email.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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