Email’s Mid-Life Crisis: Can We Tame the Killer App? Do We Really Want To?

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It's Not Business, It's Personal
The reality of the email mid-life crisis is clear to most researchers; don't expect too much change. "We are clinging to email because we understand it," says Cavanagh. Very few users even exploit Outlook's color-coding or calendaring functions to streamline the workflow. Send and Receive is the primary mode of operation, and expecting users to flip onto portals or into IM and collaborative spaces is unreasonable unless companies make huge time, money, and policy commitments to re-training. "The users have put a stake in the ground," says Craig Carpenter, director of corporate marketing at Mirapoint, which supplies email appliances and archiving to large enterprises like World Bank and Ford. Among top-tier companies, aggressive but costly training can move users to streamline email client usage, but in most cases, IT managers recognize that the solution will come more from the infrastructure than from the user end, at least for the time being.

The real bulwark for changing our email behavior and user sophistication may come from what everyone agrees is the next great platform, mobile. BlackBerrys and email clients on cell phones absolutely require filtering and prioritizing regimens, and they point the way towards taming email on the desktop by personalizing it. Critical Path, which powers messaging for 100 million inboxes at major portals, recently released the Memova mobile system, which determines from an inbox your frequent, personal correspondents, and prompts you to set permissions for which senders can course through to your mobile phone. "I usually get 250 emails a day, but on this service I get eight or nine from my wife and friends," says Mike Serbinia, CTO of Critical Path, who expects these disciplines eventually to inform our everyday messaging habits. The buddy lists and filtering mechanisms common to instant messaging and mobile are blazing the path to personalizing inboxes and treating emails from various sources differently. "Permission-based or prioritization and how email is displayed on your desktop is going to go the way of mobile phones," he says.

Resistance is Futile: Embracing Our Email Destiny
Theoretically, portal offloading or personalization schemes may cut down email volumes . . . theoretically. However, just as meandering fortysomethings ultimately discover that there is not much about themselves they really can change, email vendors and researchers seem to agree that our inboxes are destined to grow larger and more unwieldy. The real answer is in learning to go with, not curtail, the flow. If email is now a storehouse of mission-critical data, then let's build infrastructures that treat it that way rather than try to radically change behaviors.

While the email client may never have been intended to handle business transactions and sensitive document distribution, it can if you bolt onto it the right authentication and rights management tools, says Authentica's Overington. His products wrap email messages in permissions and content management that govern whether, even when, a recipient can open, download, forward, or even copy from an email. Rather than stem the email tide, tools like this actually enlarge the medium's purview, now delivering medical transactions, invoices, and financial statements. Again, the answer is not to move people off using email as much as build tools that make the email channel safer for a wider range of tasks. "The cat is out of the bag," says Overington. "You're not going to get people to stop communicating with email, but it was never built to be secure." All according to your perspective, adding rights management to email could result in a dream or nightmare scenario: paid content (our iTunes!) coming to our inbox. Talk about clutter.

Not surprisingly, email archive vendors generally dislike inbox size restrictions, and actually argue the benefits of infinite inboxes, which, of course, they are paid to store. "Don't force users to manage email but let the system manage it," says Zantaz CEO King. They have a point, however. "The less you change, the better," adds Deborah Baron, the company's director of corporate development. "Don't underestimate the importance of maintaining continuity in the email interface." The Zantaz archiving system integrates with the mail client so users, not just IT managers, can search their inboxes against keywords, time ranges, people, and phrases. Don't limit inboxes or try to modify behaviors, this faction argues. Instead, let's soup up the engine with better algorithms that treat an inbox for what it now is, a database of business intelligence.

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