Atos CEO Thierry Breton caught a lot of flak last year when he announced he wanted his employees to give up email, but he may have been on to something.
Kids these days don't use email - digital market research company comScore found that use of web-based email dropped 31% among 12- to 17-year-olds and 34% among 18- to 24-year-olds in the period between December 2010 and December 2011.
And consumers are off email as well. The Radicati Group, which tracks use of email and other messaging media, projects the number of consumer emails will decrease by 3% to 4% each year between 2012 and 2016.
Then again, there was a reason Breton came in for so much derision: email in the enterprise isn't going anywhere. Or more precisely, it isn't going anywhere but up. Radicati is projecting the number of business emails to increase by 13% every single year between now and 2016.
For enterprise employees, that means more time spent in the inbox, not only on PCs and laptops but now on tablets and smartphones, wading through newsletters, social media notifications and unfiltered spam in search of the mail they truly need to do their jobs, to say nothing of the time spent filing, archiving and retrieving those messages.
For IT, that means more screams from users about storage limits being too low (especially when Google lets them keep everything), as well as worries about security, archiving, retention, ediscovery, deletion and syncing mail between mobile devices. And then there's the cost: In 2010, Gartner estimated associated email costs of $192 per user per year.
Why do we subject ourselves to this madness? Because for all its aggravations, email works. "It's still an efficient way of communicating, almost in real time," says Phil Bertolini, CIO of Michigan's Oakland County, who's responsible for 10,000 email boxes.
"It does what it's designed to do quite well, which is allow us to securely communicate on a one-to-one or one-to-few basis," says Rob Koplowitz, principal analyst at Forrester Research.
Simply put, we may hate email, but we can't work without it. But if enterprise email volume is going to boom the way Radicati's numbers indicate, something's going to have to change, CIOs and messaging experts agree. Email is going to have to get more sophisticated and, at the same time, easier to use. And the people doing the using, who often make life harder for themselves, need to evolve, too.
Why we love email
We love email because it has utility and ubiquity. It keeps us connected and updated without requiring sender and recipients to be online at the same time, thanks to its asynchronous nature. Everyone doing business today can reasonably be expected to have an email address, where only some use communication alternatives like chat, videoconferencing or SMS texting.
Beyond that, email creates a de facto audit trail as it goes, tracking who sent what to whom when, one that is easily stored, forwarded and, barring space limitations, readily available on one's computer.
The result of this success? "Nobody can live without it for more than two minutes," says Sara Radicati, president and CEO of The Radicati Group.
From Unix mail (b. 1972) to IBM PROFS (b. 1981) and DEC All-In-1 (b. 1982) to email clients and integrated email (think Lotus Notes) to web-based mail to today's cloud-based options, email has evolved because we needed it.
Oakland County's Bertolini is a big fan of email - given that the public sector is still heavily paper-based, email still counts a big technological step forward. "We can chase new technologies, but I need something that's trusted and used by the masses. Even though there are people clamoring for newer ways to communicate, email is our main form of communication."
Why we hate email
Unfortunately, email's positives - its utility and ubiquity - have become its negatives as well.
Consider this complaint: "It doesn't matter if the message comes from a spammer hawking Viagra, your wife asking you to pick up some wine, your boss telling the company that Monday is a holiday, or a client asking for a meeting at his office at 11am. In today's inboxes, all email messages are equal." Journalist Om Malik wrote that in 2007. If anything, the situation has only gotten worse.
The problem, says Forrester's Koplowitz, is that "we use email for things it wasn't designed to do." Hooked on email, users default to it for scheduling, workflow, resource management, archiving, document management, project management, and even knowledge management, where ideas that should be shared widely are instead locked up in an email chain among a narrow list of recipients. "The things it does poorly have become problematic," Koplowitz sums up.
Email's people problem
Is the enterprise's email addiction rooted in technology or in user behaviour? Both, analysts say.
"Email is only as good as the person who organises it," observes Sara Radicati, president and CEO of The Radicati Group, which tracks use of email and other messaging media.
Over the years, enterprise email systems have added an ever-increasing number of sophisticated organisational tools, but "users still have to train the system, which is where it breaks down," Radicati explains. "Users forget how they set it up a certain way, and why. Somebody who is highly organised and structured will do well with these tools, and someone who is naturally chaotic will be chaotic."
Adam Glick, Microsoft product manager for Exchange and Outlook, acknowledges, "You can change the tools, but you can't change the people." Just one example - the current version of Office 2013 includes an option that lets users ignore any email with a particular subject line if that thread has become irrelevant to the recipient. On a grander scale, Exchange and Outlook are becoming more of a communication hub, with greater integration of chat and unified communications, Glick says.
But no matter what gets integrated or how communications evolves, IT needs to help users make the most of the new platforms, and users need to turn that assistance into action.
"IT needs to explain how and when to use these features in email," says Radicati, "and people need to learn to improve their efficiency."
Over the years developers have tried to break through users' dependence on email with software that's more sophisticated and better suited to the enterprise task at hand - often with only narrow success.
Knowledge management systems, touted in the 1990s as the next big thing, failed to catch on, while collaboration systems such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft SharePoint have been variously successful; the inclusion of Chatter into Salesforce works in the sales arena for specific needs.
But typically these systems have failed to attain email's level of ubiquity because they offered a solution that may indeed be superior to email, but only for a narrow population of enterprise users.
"There's a high correlation in the success of these tools when they're aligned with recognizable business value," says Koplowitz. Unfortunately, he adds, there's frequently an organizational mismatch. The tools that work for one department (e.g., sales) may not suffice for another (e.g., customer service).
Even when new communications tools like Yammer and Chatter do take hold throughout the enterprise, what happens? Users route their notifications to the one place they're most likely to see them first -- the ubiquitous email inbox.
IT's email burden
For IT, email is an ongoing headache. Niraj Jetly, CIO at EdenredUSA, the US division of a global developer of employee benefits and incentive solutions, cites a quartet of hassles: the volume of data; compliance and security; corporate email on user devices; and international routing.
"No one can support ever-increasing mailbox sizes," he says. "At the same time, we have to ensure the safety and security of sensitive data being transmitted. We have to ensure the availability of emails archived by users on their laptops or desktops."
As a divisional CIO within a multinational organisation, Jetly also cites as a challenge getting email from continent to continent. "It gets very tricky when different government regulations and private-sector contracts restrict email routing," he explains. For instance, certain PCI-DSS regulations require that emails originating in the US stay in the US.
The oncoming trend of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) also worries him. "If an organisation needs encrypted email but also supports BYOD, supporting access to corporate email on personal devices becomes a never-ending challenge," Jetly says. "And if a user loses a personal device, who has liability for the loss of data?" he asks.
Pete Kardiasmenos, systems architect at SBLI USA, the New York City-based insurance company, manages the firm's Exchange servers and gets involved with "anything relating to email." His biggest issue: users turning to external, free email systems, such as Yahoo and Gmail, to circumvent the company's storage limits.
"They don't have bad intentions. They want to know why they're limited to 500 megabytes when Gmail is unlimited. It's because the more space you have, the more time backup takes, the more complicated disaster recovery is. We have to constantly communicate our policies," he says. Like a lot of enterprise organisations, SBLI USA has had to block the use of public email systems from company-owned computers as a security measure, and limit space in Exchange for most users because of storage cost issues.
Even then, he says, email is still a headache for the company. "People keep email in their inbox the same way they keep files on their desktop, to keep them handy. They send the same file back and forth as an attachment until you have 10 versions that you have to store."
For Oakland County's Bertolini, it's the management that's the challenge - managing passwords, and managing Outlook's .pst backup files when they get too big. At least, he says, when those files get too large, they start to generate error messages. "We find out about it when users have a problem," sighs Bertolini.
"In one case, we discovered thousands of emails dating back to 2001," Bertolini relates. "And the real problem is that most of them dealt with trivia like meeting for lunch. There's a cost to maintaining and managing email over time."
The largest burden for IT, Radicati says, is simply uptime. "The overriding concern for IT is making sure that it's up and running and available," she says.
Email in the cloud
So what's IT supposed to do? Certainly, cloud is one of several ways to view email differently. Radicati is highly optimistic about email in the cloud. "It's absolutely the way to go," she says. "A lot of cloud-based email providers have archiving and compliance capabilities in place, and if you want more features, you can purchase them as an additional capability."
In Oakland County, Bertolini is investigating using Microsoft Office 365 in the cloud. "There's still a cost associated with storage, but part of our ROI analysis will be comparing the cost of storage in the cloud versus letting people keep more email," he says, adding that he's worried that if "you give them more storage, they will fill it up."
But he also sees other advantages. "If I can host email externally and still have the safety and security the county government needs, I can save millions in the long term. We'd need two to three people to manage Microsoft Exchange, but if I go to the cloud, I don't need those people. And in three or four years, I'm not replacing my mail servers."
Still, questions remain. "A lot of IT departments are investigating moving email to the cloud," Radicati says, "but there is still concern about whether it will be private enough, secure enough, and reliable enough."
Merging communications tools
Like many technologies IT has to deal with, email's boundaries are expanding, which means IT needs to begin thinking about email less as a silo and more as one component of a multi-modal communications system.
Bertolini notes that the new generation of employees clamors for instant messaging - and he's not against it. "They use it to collaborate more. When they have chat, they can get things done in realtime." He's also looking at more videoconferencing, first on a one-to-one basis from desktop to desktop, and then from conference room to conference room, and then into a multipoint video arraignment system for the public safety team, because it saves having to transport the county's prisoners among facilities.
Fortunately, these communication mechanisms will start to merge together, analysts predict. Radicati believes that email in the next two to five years won't look tremendously different, but we won't talk about email so much as a stand-alone tool. Instead, we'll have a communications dashboard that includes email, instant messaging and social media.
These hubs will all come about thanks to new open APIs, not only for social media applications like Facebook and LinkedIn, but also for unified communications protocols like Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP).
Forrester's Koplowitz concurs. "Over the next few years, we'll see greater integration across these tools. Think about how messaging is integrated into Gmail - you don't have to switch back and forth because they're all integrated together," he says, citing work that IBM (with Connections and Notes), Google (with Gmail and Gchat), Microsoft (with SharePoint and Yammer) and Facebook are doing.
"We'll have a new environment with new aspects of communication," Koplowitz predicts. "Today they're different tools, but in the next three to five years, they'll be integrated."