The never-ending quest to dethrone email

Pretenders to the messaging throne have been many, but email still reigns. Here’s how that might change

Build a better mousetrap, as the cliché has it, and the world will beat a path to your door. That line of thinking has even been applied to the most rudimentary corners of the technology world: standards and protocols that have stuck around for decades, yet viewed as creaky and badly in need of replacement. But few old-guard standards have seen as many pretenders to the throne as the SMTP/POP3/IMAP email triumvirate has. If only someone could come up with an alternative that did everything email did but better, more securely, and with less hassle, wouldn’t it be worth it?

Over the decades, dozens if not hundreds of companies, initiatives, and products have tried to find a way to move past the SMTP/POP3/IMAP standard. Some have found niches for themselves, despite being proprietary. Many disappeared without a trace. But all try to solve email’s ills in one of three ways: Reinvent emaiI from the inside out with an entirely new protocol; ameliorate email’s peccadillos by making it more intuitive and less aggravating; or shift the work traditionally done in email to other venues.

Here we break down each of these strategies and highlight the current contenders most likely to affect the future of email.

The quest to create a new protocol

Devising an entirely new protocol for email would be the most effective way to move email forward. The problem is, it’s the most difficult path to success.

What makes such an approach attractive is the potential to fix many of email’s problems -- spam, security, inefficient protocol design -- at the root. By replacing aging standards that evolved in an ad hoc fashion with new ones that were crafted intentionally to account for decades of real-world experiences with email, the IT world would enjoy a much more solid foundation for messaging going forward.

Of course, reinventing at the root is nearly impossible, for two reasons.

First, creating a new protocol everyone can agree to use is difficult, to put it mildly. Such developments typically take shape only when an entity with significant clout advocates for its use; even then, nothing is guaranteed. Google, for instance, has hatched its alternative to the IMAP standard (vintage 1986), but it applies only to Gmail. As such, getting developers to build for this alternative solves only a tiny corner of the problem. Also, any new protocol would have to be supported on clients and servers. Sure, the two have moved closer together thanks to Web-based mail clients, but mobile devices and desktop users would need to be kept in that loop.

A second problem with the new-standard route -- potentially thornier than the first -- is that transitioning existing SMTP/POP/IMAP users to any new standard would likely require almost too much disruption. One possible solution, which addresses the above problem as well, has been proposed by a startup named Inbox (not to be confused with Google Inbox). Inbox’s plan is to roll out a replacement protocol for email by wrapping existing email systems with a newly devised protocol and API set. Eventually, if enough people adopt the Inbox protocols, the old systems can be deprecated in favor of the new, and the resulting protocols can (one would assume) be submitted as an IETF RFC.

Inbox has the right idea, in that the protocol and API set it has devised are open source (GNU Affero GPL licensed), and the project is designed to appeal most directly to developers of email applications building on mobile platforms. A similar project both in its approach and its design is JMAP, a protocol proposed by FastMail. JMAP uses JSON to encompass and package all the possible requests and responses used for email: sending and receiving, calendaring, contacts, and so on.

Building a better inbox

Given how tough it is to rip and replace email at the protocol level, small wonder many have concentrated instead on fixing the client experience. After all, most of the headaches users experience with email revolve less around the protocols and more around managing email so that it doesn't turn into a job unto itself.

The current plans in this vein go well beyond a more elegant-looking client or one better suited to mobile use. Instead, they use statistical analysis to automatically classify and act on email -- to figure out with as little user intervention as possible which emails can be dumped, which can be circled back to later, and which need to be replied to right now. “The goal of email 2.0,” said Dave Bagget, CEO of Inky Mail, “should be to make email clients more like personal assistants than mere tools for sending, receiving, and organizing email.”

Google has been hard at work on this approach. Google has carried Gmail’s autocategorization system to a further extreme with its new mail product called Inbox. With Inbox, mail is batched together automatically in “bundles,” according to certain criteria. Emails that Inbox believes are most important, such as updates on product purchases or travel arrangements, are emphasized, as are to-do items and reminders.

IBM, too, has a similar project in the works, one meant to extend on its existing user base for Lotus Notes. Verse ditches Lotus Notes’ heavy native client for a lightweight Web-based option, focuses on people and conversations rather than on individual email messages, and uses IBM’s Watson machine learning service to help classify messages. What’s more, IBM has pitched its early-access program for Verse at users, presumably to see whether it carries over from there into the enterprise.

The problem with algorithm-driven inboxes: They need to be at least as good as -- if not better than -- human-powered curation. They also won’t gain much uptake with business users if they don’t provide functionality taken for granted in those circles. (As of this writing, Google’s Inbox is still missing a few such items, including signatures, shortcuts, and advanced filters.) Any such inbox needs to provide users with a fallback to an uncurated view of their messages, or people will begin to feel like their email isn’t really their email anymore.

Move work out of email

Yet another let’s-kill-email approach doesn’t involve altering clients or protocols, but rather the work habits most commonly associated with email. This could include discussions on a given topic with coworkers, or passing files back and forth between colleagues -- activities that can be moved to venues purpose-built to host them properly.

Among the creations devised for that job is Slack (motto: “Be less busy”) from Tiny Speck, which was featured recently in Bob Brown’s roundup of 25 cloud, security, and mobile startups to watch. Slack comes off as a sort of chat system with multiple rooms or “channels,” with all discussions searchable and synced automatically between multiple client apps. Private groups and direct messages are also part of the design. Many popular third-party applications -- Dropbox, GitHub, JIRA, and more -- have integrations ready to use, along with toolkits and an API to allow you to add your own.

Huddle, another system designed to move coworker collaboration activity away from email, uses a central dashboard metaphor to present team members with a project-centric view of their work. Projects can be created and delegated, and individuals can loop other people into their projects as needed. Files ascribed to a project are hosted within the project and are secured against unauthorized access, thereby preventing the need to mail attachments or file-share links to team members. Discussions -- the part of Huddle most designed as a replacement for email -- are reminiscent of Web forums, including discussion threading.

The main drawback with systems like these is that they don’t really replace email so much as create secondary, siloed, proprietary structures alongside it. Most anyone will still need email to deal with the rest of the world, and these systems seem aware of that. Huddle, for instance, can be set to echo activity on message threads to -- you guessed it -- email.

There’s a larger question of the usefulness of moving work-related processes out of email. Forrester analyst Phillip Karcher took the stance that “enterprise social,” as these types of applications are called, “is a complement, not a replacement for email.” He claimed that according to research, “compared to workers who don’t use enterprise social, those that do actually spend more time in their typical workday looking for information.” But he also noted that, in his purview, this didn’t imply they were being inefficient, but were “tapping their peers and taking more time to make informed decisions.”

Maybe email’s here to stay after all

Given the uphill battle, it’s very likely that email will remain right where it is, at the center of our working lives. Other items may evolve in parallel, but email’s central position as a universal standard in business -- and as the default system of record for enterprise communications -- won’t likely change.

InfoWorld’s Galen Gruman has dissected several of the arguments about email’s alleged harms: It’s an old technology; it deluges the user with too much information; it’s a pain to maintain. Each of those arguments, and some of their proposed solutions, have been echoed here in various forms.

But each stance, as Gruman pointed out, also invites a potent counterargument. Email overload is more a failure of users’ filtering habits than one of the technology itself (although there’s certainly room for a smarter inbox). Maintaining any enterprise infrastructure isn’t easy, and moving away from email might mean moving to new and untested management tools. Most important, a new technology isn’t always a better one; in email’s case, it’s hung around because it’s widely adopted, broadly supported, nonproprietary, and well-understood.

Back in 2010, Gartner analysts predicted some 20 percent of corporate email use would be replaced with social networks of some kind by 2014. Some of their predictions came true: Email clients certainly have more cross-integration with social networks. But what email brings to the enterprise, like an automatic audit trail, remains immensely attractive. It may not be surprising to hear that, in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Internet Project, 61 percent of workers with Internet connections rated email as “very important” to their job, whereas social networking ranked at around 4 percent.

That isn’t to say email won’t morph into something better over time, only that the process is likely to be incremental, laborious, and cautious. If Inbox’s experiments with wrapping new protocols around the old ones takes off, and IBM’s experiments with email curated by machine learning prove successful, and enterprises decide that much of their internal communications can be done outside of email -- that might bring everyday messaging to an entirely new place. But only because we would have walked down many different roads in parallel to get there, and not any one of them alone.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.