Email’s about to die? I think not


Ho hum: the recent Wired.com article “The Next Big Thing You Missed: Email’s About to Die, Argues Facebook Co-Founder” seemed to be one big advertisement for Asana, a startup based in San Francisco. Asana, led by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, wants to provide us with a replacement for regular email, one that is more project focused and based on a “work graph” rather than the “social graph” that apparently we use in email. According to the article, a work graph concentrates on the work that needs to be done within a company rather than the social graph, which focuses on human beings (the users).

Much as I respect the inventiveness of designs and explanations drawn on the proverbial scrap of paper, I wonder if this is yet another case of a startup that has created some nice software and is now looking for a problem to solve. That problem being the 28% of the average workweek that corporate workers spend reading and answering their email (according to a McKinsey report). Hmmm… I wonder if the workers would have been doing anything more productive, perhaps checking their Facebook account, if they didn’t spend so much time on email. Or maybe that time spent in email is actually productive work.

“Embediness” (my word) is a problem often faced a new paradigm when it appears on the scene and seeks to knock an incumbent technology off its perch. In other words, companies and their employees have invested so deeply in a technology like email that it requires a massive upheaval to detach from the existing technology and move to the new. Such an upheaval requires executive sponsorship and leadership and then a huge amount of organization, project management, and energy if it is to have any chance of success. A so-so decision that “we’ll try out the new stuff and see how it goes” is doomed to failure, even if some clear business benefits can be seen in using a new technology.

The problem is even more intense when the in-place technology has proved to be enduring over multiple generations of both products and workers. Email has morphed and evolved from its earliest days of “green screen text-based messaging” where it started to ride multiple technology cycles from mainframe to mini-computer to PC-LAN to client-server and now cloud. It has accumulated a huge amount of new features and functionality along the way and has become a part of the way business lives are managed. Most of the current workforce has no concept of how they might perform their job without email. And given the number who subscribe to free email services like Gmail, Outlook.com, and Yahoo! Mail, a fair number of people might find it hard to run their home life without email either, even with Facebook, Twitter, and multiple other applications to help.

I doubt that Asana and Dustin Moskovitz will succeed in convincing large multinational companies to embrace a new model to replace email. The customers listed on Asana’s site seem to be small companies, many of which work in the same Internet space, and no evidence is presented that any of these customers have dropped email. It’s true that customers like Dropbox say that they have found Asana to be helpful in managing projects and getting work done. This is goodness, but it makes Asana sound more like social-based project management software rather than something which might replace email.

Over the years, many attempts have been made to introduce technology that takes over part or all of what email does. In my corporate days, I was responsible for projects based on technology that didn’t go anywhere (like the original Groove Networks product before it was sold to Microsoft) and some that did (the original SharePoint Portal Server); none took over from email and none really changed user behavior in any significant way. Some users liked the new technology very much and took to it immediately; others hated it and refused to use the new software. As mentioned above, strong executive commitment and a huge amount of energy made a difference but email usage never declined.

I see the same problem looming for Yammer. No doubt Microsoft will do their level best to emphasize the usefulness and wisdom of adopting internal social networks and directing some (or many) of the conversations that now take place in email to Yammer. But I wonder whether users (rather than the technologists who love working with new stuff) will take to the change in work habit that is implied. We shall see in time. It’ll certainly be a topic that I hope to learn more about over the next year.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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About Tony Redmond ("Thoughts of an Idle Mind")

Exchange MVP, author, and rugby referee
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4 Responses to Email’s about to die? I think not

  1. Tom says:

    There’s an irony in that Asana’s default setting is to email you about upcoming tasks.

  2. Nick P says:

    i read the article in Wired as well, and also went to see if i should be pursuing a career with Asana, instead of Exchange. “probably not”, was my conclusion. It’s just another task sharing app, not a milion miles from the more established Wunderlist, for instance.
    There is certainly an element of cyberloafing in email, but i find a goodly chunk of my corporate inbox every day is filled with business communication that my employer is required to send me to fulfil its role as an “Investor in People”, mails from people covering their backside by ensuring that they’ve told me (and sixty other people) about something i’m probably not that interested in, pictures of cats that have been sent to 12,000 people, RSS posts from blogs that i’m following (must remember to drop my subscription to exchange unwashed…), requests to cover other people’s on-call rota, and so on and so on. the point is, getting rid of email doesn’t get rid of all this matter, it will just be sent to me via a different channel; Asana will quickly become just as much of a PITA as mail is, if mail is done away with. anyway, i’m an adult, and so i know what i need to read depending on how busy i am.

    there’s always time for the cats, of course.

  3. Nick P says:

    and i return to my inbox over my coffee, and there’s another article on wired about the imminent demise of email; this time it has been condemned to the scrap heap by pinterest. one thing hasn’t changed, though – both articles are by the same author. hmmm. some people just don’t like email, i guess.

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