Email forever! Why social apps can't replace it

Social app aficionados want to kill email, but their solutions are worse than the supposed disease

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Management headaches. Managing all those email boxes -- the Exchange servers, the Active Directory accounts and policies, the malware scanning, the attachment deduplication, and the massive storage -- is driving many an IT admin to drink and costing companies too much money. Get rid of email to get rid of that cost.

Let's say you replace email with instant messaging or a social tool like Yammer. Someone has to set up and manage the accounts, as well as the user directories. Messages need to be stored for discovery purposes, both for legal and internal reference needs. If there are no attachments to manage the storage, how is complex data shared -- via file shares with links? Phishing is still a potential issue that needs an antimalware strategy.

As you can see, you quickly end up creating a management, security, and storage infrastructure as complex, or perhaps more complex, than the one for email. The truth is that all of this overhead is not about email per se but about communications of any sort. Any social collaboration tools introduce the same complexities -- and that complexity is magnified when you have multiple systems in place.

Get realistic about communications
Those who hold a grudge against email don't have any alternatives that do what email does. That's why email is not only going to stick around but will remain the best mainstay communications tool. Here's what email does better than other communications channels, social or point-to-point:

  • The ability to filter and organize messages. That's powerful for managing the flood of emails as well as for managing the contents, such as to keep project-specific messages in one place. Too many people avoid these flood-management capabilities. My only real beef is that you can't typically set up filters at the server side, so you must replicate your filters at each client -- and mobile clients don't let you set up or run filters.
  • The ability to serve as an archive. Think about how often you go back to an earlier email. Now try that in instant messaging or a social tool.
  • The ability to work both as a point-to-point messaging tool and as a group messaging tool. Alernatives do one or the other, not both -- so you have multiple accounts to check and keep track of.
  • Compatibility with pretty much any computing device. You can check and manage email on a smartphone, computer, or website. That's not always possible in other services, leading to access gaps.
  • The ability to bring multiple accounts together. There are goood reasons to separate personal and work emails, using separate clients for each. But there are also good reasons to have one email client with email flowing into account-specific folders -- and that means less back and forth for users. Outside of BlackBerry 10's Hub and, to a lesser extent, Windows Phone's People app, you can't do that with other forms of messaging.

Of course, none of this means you should be email-only. It can make sense to have multiple channels of communications: instant messaging or wikis for project groups, Twitter and LinkedIn for self-marketing and trend scanning, Facebook for virtual get-togethers, and email for the bulk of your transactional information and acknowledgements. Even if you replace email in your business with another tool, you'll need it for communications with providers, clients, and customers, as well as to receive confirmations such as for travel reservations and account change validations -- which should make you question why you'd have two separate systems in the first place.

Email is a great technology that revolutionized communications across distances never before possible, connecting pairs of people as easily as groups and serving as a memory store at the same time. It does so in an asynchronous manner, which means the conversation can continue over time, even if not everyone is on at the same time. Nothing else does all that.

Use it for all it can do. Celebrate it. And look at other communications tools for what they do, not for a misguided, vague desire to supplant the email that works so well.

This article, "Email forever! Why social apps can't replace it," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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