UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

The (Technology) Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present and Christmas Yet To Come

Posted by Brian Kelly on 22 Dec 2011

The Technology Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present

We are approaching not only the end of the year but also, if you start counting at ‘1’ rather than ‘0’, the end of the millennium’s first decade. It is therefore timely to consider not only the developments which may be influential for the next decade (for which I feel that large-scale collaborative and communications technologies will result in Collective Intelligence being significant for the sector, which will be helped by a continuing trend towards Openness) and the new technologies of a few years ago which were initially dismissed as irrelevant and unsustainable, but are now used by many mainstream users (in December 2009 I asked 2009 – The Year Of Twitter?; I now wonder when not having a Twitter account will be regarded as odd) but also technologies which have been widely used in the past but now seem to be in decline.

In this post I’ll avoid temptations to be speculative about emerging and emerged technologies and reflect on an aspect of IT which I first started using in, if I recall correctly, 1983 and have used on a variety of platforms, from Prime and VAX mini-computers, Multics and IBM mainframes, through to today’s PC and Apple Macintosh desktop computers and Android and Apple phones and tablet computers. I’ve also used the default mail application on various platforms as well as Pegasus, Eudora, Outlook, Thunderbird and K-9 email clients. We can truly day that email has proved itself to be popular, ubiquitous, platform and application independent and clearly long-living. Email, we can safely say, provides an example in which the IT profession should be pleased to have delivered such a well-liked and robust service.

But is this really the case? Are we starting to see weak signals which suggest that email may be in decline? Might we be in the early stages of a move away from use of email towards an environment in which other forms of collaboration, communication and dissemination tools may provide benefits which email may fail to provide?

“Email is Dying”

At the ILI 2005 conference in London in October 2005 I gave a talk entitled “Email Must Die!” in which I, rather provocatively, argued that if we information professionals, in particular, were well-placed to appreciate the implications of the suggestion that  “E-mail is where knowledge goes to die” and should be welling to take a lead in exploiting a variety of Web 2.0 tools which were starting to emerge at the time which could address the various well-known deficiencies of email: the spam; the duplication of information; office politics based on use of cc: and bcc: the lack of structure; the difficulties of content reuse; etc.

A subsequent Ariadne article with the rather more hesitant question “Must Email Die?” discussed these issues in more depth and outlined how technologies such as blog, wikis, instant messaging, RSS, Skype and other VOIP systems could all replace various uses for which email has traditionally been used.

Two years later, in May 2007, a post entitled “Email IS Dying” referenced an article on “Firms to embrace Web 2.0 tools” published in the Computing newsletter from an original article published in a Gartner report. This article reminded me of a UCISA Poll on Instant Messaging published in 2004 in which a correspondent from the University of Bath stated that “mail seen by younger people to be ‘boring’ ‘full of spam’, IM and SMS immediacy preferred“.

The Gartner report described how:

MySpace and FaceBook are the most successful community environments on the planet because they have pulled people away from email, which is the one thing that nothing else has managed to do so far’.

Facebook has clearly developed significantly in its user base and functionality since Gartner published the report in 2007 although, on the other hand, MySpace has declined significantly. Perhaps the uncertainty as to who would ‘win’ in the battle over the social networking environments – a battle which is irrelevant for email users for which application independence has always been a key feature – has been a barrier to takeup of alternatives to email?

Are Email Lists on Life-Support?

The talks and articles which were presented and published over five years ago where meant to highlight to both early adopters and policy makers that there may be significant changes in the offing, which advance planning will need to consider. At the time the suggestions of a growth in importance of instant messaging (in itself, not a new technology, but one which had previously had little significant role in mainstream university activities) was meant to highlight a possible need to change institutional acceptable use policies which may previously have banned instant messaging services as having no useful role in support teaching and learning or research activities.  I suspect that use of instant messaging technologies is now widely permitted across the sector, perhaps because of an acknowledgment of the value of instant messaging, but also possibly due to the difficulty in banning such technologies, which seems to be now provided within many networked environments.

But although there is a need for advocacy and highlighting potential changes there is also a need to monitor changes in order to see if predictions are coming true or not.

Graph of JISCMail usageIn June 2010 a post on The Decline in JISCMail Use Across the Web Management Community documented evidence on 10 years use of two JISCMail lists which clearly demonstrated the decline in usage since about 2004 (illustrated in accompanying image).

A follow-up survey which explored use of JISCMail by the Dublin Core community was described in a post on DCMI and JISCMail: Profiling Trends of Use of Mailing Lists. This showed that although the overall numbers of lists is still growing, the total volume of traffic has been in decline since 2005. That survey caused me to speculate that new lists which have been created are failing to stimulate discussion and debate but are merely used to replicate posting advertising events, job vacancies and similar broadcast announcements across a range of lists. Although the limited interface options to JISCMail lists meant that I was not able to validate this speculation, in a post entitled Are Mailing Lists Now Primarily A Broadcast Medium? I did discover some small-scale evidence which backs up this assertion for a number of lists to which I subscribe.

Email lists are clearly still being used but evidence is starting to question their value. But at least email lists work across platforms. Or do they?

Are Email Lists Really Interoperable?

Client Limitations

A somewhat tongue-in-cheek post by Scott Wilson describes a Revolutionary messaging technology will challenge FB, Twitter, IM which:

  • It works on all kinds of devices and across all networks
  • You can search, read and respond to messages even when you’re offline
  • Works with intelligent filtering services
  • You can send and receive messages with anyone on any network, not just the same service provider you use
  • The server code is open source so you can run your own
  • Completely distributed architecture with no central server or hub node
  • Uses open standards for pretty much everything
  • Clients for all platforms including mobile, even TV – and anyone can make their own client as the API isn’t proprietary

Of course Scott is describing email. Scott goes on to add; that:

However, not everyone is convinced yet and think that we should stick with proprietary messaging silos tied to one service provider such as Facebook and Twitter, despite the obvious risk of these services being discontinued, monetized, tracking your communications for nefarious purposes, and spamming you with advertising at any opportunity. 

But is email really as interoperable as has been suggested? I used to think that email was interoperable – until I started to use email clients on a variety of platforms.

I’ve experienced particular problems with reading digests of messages from JISCMail lists. This is my preferred way of using mailing lists, as it helps to minimise the numbers of messages arriving in my incoming mail folder. However despite being able to view messages successfully using the digest’s MIME interface in the past, since moving to new email clients I have found that either such messages can’t be viewed (on an Apple Macintosh or iPod Touch email client) or have to be viewed by Notepad (using Thunderbird on an MS Windows platform).

HTML and Email

A W3C Note on Conventions for use of HTML in emailwas published way back in January 1998. However it wasn’t until May 2007 that the W3C organised a W3C HTML Mail Workshop and the minutes failed to provide details of any actions which arose from the meeting. It does appear that, despite the paper on Web standards: a must for html email which was presented at the meeting, there is a lack of agreed standards for how HTML should be used in email, resulting in IT Service departments, such as Glasgow University’s “recommend[ing] sending ‘plain text’ email instead of HTML or rich text email, particularly if sending email to a large distribution list“. Despite suggestions that we should we moving towards use of more semantically rich content we do seem to often be discarding the simple structural elements provided in HTML when we make use of email.

Technical Challenges in Reusing Email Content

As well as the lack of visual clues which can be presented by HTML, I am also aware that software developers who wish to process content held in email archives can find it difficult to process the variety of ways in which messages and accompanying attachments can be stored.

Email has been described as the place “where knowledge goes to die“. A cynic might also regarded mailing lists as a DRM system which makes it harder for content to be reused!

Email is Happy in its Rest Home?

Two years ago Esther Steinfeld asking people to Stop Saying Email is Dying. It’s Not. But last week an article on the Financial Times Web site (free subscription needed to view article) reported on the story about how:

When Thierry Breton, chief executive of Atos, said the IT services company would ban use of internal email by 2014, it caused a sensation across the media, with commentators describing the idea as either “brave”, “stupid” or doomed to failure.

but went on to point out that:

a number of companies have been quietly moving away from using email as the primary way of communicating within the company.

The article described how companies such as Capgemini are making use of social networking tools such as Yammer to replace some of the functionality traditionally provided by email, with Capgemini stating that “it has reduced its internal email traffic by 40 per cent in the 18 months since staff began using Yammer“.  Capgemini, together with companies such as Klick and Atos continue to use email for communicating with people outside the companies and expect that email will continue to exist in some form for many years to come. However email management consultant Monica Seely suggested that “In three to five years we will see a more pluralistic landscape with messages being transferred to some kind of social media platform. But email will remain a bedrock of businesses for some time to come.

A post on the Social Media in Organisations blog entitled The “End” of Email: Reflections from a Digital Era Thinker also highlighted “the recent statement made by Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos, about the “elimination” of email at the company [which] churned up quite a bit of controversy in cyberspace” and suggested that “It All Boils Down to Leadership“.

The (Technology) Ghosts of Christmas Yet To Come

This post was initially entitled “Reflections on the Slow Death of Email“. But since there have been 10 responses in May 200714 responses in June 20103 responses in December 2010 and 8 responses in May 2011 to previous posts on this topic, rather than revisiting the discussions on the flaws and merits of email we need to accept that there will be a divergence in views on the merits of email and on the merits of promoting changes or accepting user preferences.

It should also be clear that a move towards making greater use of richer alternatives to email isn’t to imply a matter of leadership, as was suggested above. In the commercial sector companies may find it easier to enforce policy decisions about technologies, as was seen when WH Smiths made the business decision to stop selling LPs. In the public sector, however, there is a need to support sectoral needs rather than being driven by purely commercial interests. And since it is clear that there is no clear support for a move away from email, the suggestion that it boils down to leadership does seem incorrect.

For me, therefore, a broader question which considerations of the slow decline in email raises is “What technologies do we have today which we might like to replace and how do we, if at all, address a reluctance to change?

An example of a technology which some people expected to experience a sharp decline was Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office applications. Back in the mid to late 1990s I can recall people arguing that due to factors including:

  • The cost of these products
  • The proprietary nature of the products
  • Legal moves within the EU and the US based on possible illegal selling practices
  • The growing maturity of open source alternatives such as Linux and Star Office and Open Office

we would see Microsoft decline in importance.

This clearly didn’t happen. Microsoft is still around but is now facing other threats including a renewed popularity of Apple Macintosh computers and a growth in mobile devices, including smart phones and tablet computers, with Apple and Android providing the main threats.

But writing off Microsoft can be easy (and tempting) to do. It will be more interesting to think about other areas of technology in which we might expect innovations to replace existing well-established products and services, but subsequently find that users are content with the existing working patterns, even if flawed, and remain unconvinced that it is worth making a change. I’d welcome your suggestions.

8 Responses to “The (Technology) Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present and Christmas Yet To Come”

  1. While my perspective is admittedly limited, and while I can almost be legitimately referred to as an old stick-in-the-mud, I think my own experience is relevant.

    Currently, email is by far and away the most common way people contact me. I’ll get maybe two or three phone calls in a day, zero instant messages or texts, and about 200 emails. Granted, 150 of those are not useful emails. But the remainder still dwarfs what’s left.

    But OK, that’s just me. My mobile phone is usually turned off and lost somewhere in the house, the battery drained. I don’t use an instant messaging client because ICQ never worked with MSN, which never worked with AOL, etc, etc. But I do have active Facebook and Twitter accounts (from which I’ll average a couple of messages a day) and I’m not *that* technologically archaic.

    My newsletter statistics tell a similar story. My website gets a lot of views on the web – almost a million page views in the last six months – and the number of email recipients of my newsletter continues to grow slowly, now over 3300 a day and around 5000 for the weekly. My Facebook friends, meanwhile, which peaked at 3000 or so, have *dropped* to 1800 – many people don’t want the newsletter in their social networking. And while the OLDaily Twitter account has almost 1500 subscribers, that’s still less than a third of the number subscribing to my personal account. RSS as well remains strong, with something like 5000 (or it could be 10,000 – I don’t have a good count, just Google Reader stats).

    What does this tell me?

    There may be a lot of traffic in social networks and instant messaging, but it’s personal traffic, replacing what used to be accomplished with a quick phone call. I’ve never really been a phone call person, and today I’m not an instant messaging person.

    And there are two other observations I would make:

    First, it’s not clear to me at least how successful Facebook and Twitter would be without email and the web. Especially the web. Both services depended a lot – and to a certain extent still depend – on email notifications to get off the ground. I would probably never visit Facebook unless an email notification reminded me that people want to friend me, or that someone has sent me a Facebook message (the same was true of twitter until I turned it off).

    Second, a significant part of the traffic on Twitter and Facebook point to those very web contents that i also send by email (journalists say that most of that traffic points to professional news content, but I’m not sure the numbers would bear that out). RSS, email and the web are all different facets of the same content, at least when email is thought of from the perspective of email lists, as opposed to quick person-to-person messages.

    When Google+ came out I thought that it might be a viable alternative to web or email (I’m sure Google thought so too – a Wave that works, I can imagine them saying to themselves). But with the same sort of limitations imposed on users as those by Facebook and Twitter – the walled-garden effect, with a clampdown on links out – Google+ is also aiming for the same personal traffic as the other services. There’s a lot of such traffic – the telephone was successful, and so should be these services, over time.

    But people do *not* want to use those channels for more formal communications, no more than they want to receive advertising or music over their telephones. These communications rely on what are being represented here as ‘old’ technologies – email and the web. Longer and more in-depth content will continue to be transmitted over these channels (or something similar, but *not* something like instant messaging or social networking).

    So – as you ask – what will replace email and/or RSS and/or the web in the future, if not Google+? Probably our best clues are found in iPhone and iPad apps. Though these platforms are not as open as the devices of the future will be, the sort of functionality found in apps will come to characterize what we will find in web pages and email messages in general (indeed, if one were to measure the app market side by side with with social networks or instant messaging, we would be tempted to rashly predict the death of the latter!).

    We need to work out some things. These apps (or at least the data they run on) have to be interoperable. Though the walled-garden works for Apple now, in a wider market it will be unsustainable. Additionally, with the proliferation of mobile content that actually does something on your device, security will have to be dramatically improved (indeed, security is the paramount reason why Apple has employed the walled garden – it keeps the incidence of spam, virii and phishing way down, unlike (say) contemporary email.

    The more formal content of the future will resemble the magazine apps of today, with built-in hooks to social networks (to support back-chatter) but also to live data, analytics, interactive media, smart functionality, game-like or simulated behaviour, and other goodies I can’t even begin to think of today. Like web 2.0, in other words, but without the sensation of being tied together with duct tape and Javascript.

    And while in some cases these new products are being displayed on completely new platforms (like iOS or Android) they will also be displayed on the good-old-web and delivered via RSS, email or personal subscription (which for all practical purposes are in this context indistinguishable from each other). They will not be displayed on the Facebook, Twitter or Google+ ‘platforms’, no more than you would read a magazine by radio.

    People creating email, web and RSS products are already well into the design of corresponding apps. As these apps gain in popularity, the numbers of the ‘traditional’ services will decline. But the numbers in social networks or instant messages won’t increase correspondingly – because social networks and instant messaging are not replacing email, the web and RSS, no matter what the numbers seem to show.

    • Many thanks for your comprehensive response.

      Note that I agree with you that it can be valuable to reflect on one’s own personal usage patterns. It was after looking at my use of a number of mailing lists which helped me to spot that use was dropping and an increasing proportion of posts were announcements used to promote events, advertise jobs, etc. rather than promote collaboration and discussion. As a result of my analysis of a number of lists I subsequently decided to leave several of the lists. In addition, inspired by a post on My information consumption habits or how having a smartphone changed the way I work by Aaron Tay a year ago I installed Xobni in order to give me a better understanding of how I use email. However after a few month’s usage I got a new PC and moved from MS Outlook to Thunderbird and as the applications only works with Outlook and GMail, was unable to have an objective picture of my email usage patterns.

      It is interesting to think about how you and I communicate. We’ve met a couple of times but I don’t believe we’ve ever exchanged email messages – rather we’ve commented on each others blogs.

      You have identified a number of use cases for email which we both continue to use – notifications of changes from social web services. This might include new people following us, requests for connection, information about new content, etc. Interestingly we tend to find that such notifications are configurable and typically will disable them if the volume is too great (e.g. when new people follow us on Twitter, subscribe to our blog, etc.) Like you I also find significant numbers of experienced users who have an email subscription to my blog. So email for alerts is still very important for both of use.

      In addition I feel that email will continue to be important for small-scale personal communications, including both personal and professional uses. However I think we will continue to see changing use patterns for email, perhaps with younger people who haven’t been brought up in an email environment being more willing to use other alternatives. Perhaps, indeed, email is an example of a tool which is little used by the Google generation and digital natives, with use not being split across the residents vs visitors divide.

      • Andy Heath said

        A little late reading this because, though I find a read-it-later heap to be not very useful (it turns into the discard-it-unread-later-heap) I did put this one away to savour later and am now savouring it. Thank you for an interesting post and discussion gentlemen.

        The reason for mailing lists falling into disuse seems to me quite simple – mailing lists were invented back in the DARPA days. When they hit the public street with the popularisation of the Internet in say late 90’s they were taken up by communities that needed them because *there* *was* *nothing* *else*. They were the *only* tool available to the non-geek or slightly-geek at the time for communicating with a community. They were less than a perfect fit to the needs of those communities but they did the job and were useable (just about!). Suddenly I could communicate much more with my cycle-campaigning group and elephants-foot-sock-knitters could discuss the merits of a particular kind of purl stitch for the big toe. At that time even web sites were a broadcast medium – they were one way. Apart from IRC, which really was limited to geeks because you had to know about commands and terminals and things, it was the only choice.

        Now there are tools better suited to use by communities such as used the lists and in fact by everyone from 2 to 102 (well we’re nearly there ;-) ) and that usage has moved off email. The geeks have also gone because its not interesting any more in the way it was when only geeks used it. Its real uses, such as Stephen has outlined, remain.

        Things are becoming more differentiated, each tool being used for its best characteristics as those characteristics become clearer. At the same time, the take-up becomes ever wider. This is ongoing, its nowhere near finished. However, for me at least, email is here to stay. There are *some* conversations I’m *never* going to want to use any more connected medium for simply because some conversations are closer than others and for some there is a *need* for a “distant” mechanism.

        What I find to be fun is that in some relationships I have several communication mechanisms available and I don’t always remember which one I’m having a particular conversation on. I might have a conversation that starts on email, continues hours later on the phone then finishes on facebook or skype – depending on the context available at the time. Others, say with my ex-wife might be constrained to email and phone. As I see it its all about relationships that we maintain and different ones impose different constraints on the communication mechanism. A CEO may well be in a position to mandate the technological mode of internal conversations in an organisation. In other circumstances it might be the context or the quality of the relationship that determines the mode. Its great that we have much better tools and much more flexibility to choose an appropriate mode for a conversation. But for me at least, some conversations will *always* be confined to email because I prefer not to give the other party more access than email provides.

        What *is* disappointing is what spam has done to email. If email has a attempted-murderer that nearly killed it then spam has to be a prime suspect. I am of the firm opinion that were email being designed now, we wouldn’t do it the way it was done. I remember a paper I saw presented (can’t find it now) on an experimental “pull” system for email where the receiver would pull mails from senders with an algorithm resembling two-phase-commit/semaphore handling for initial unsolicited contact – a little like pulling rss as we do but with a way to get from new sources. Had that been the mechanism adopted ….. but of course spam wasn’t thought of when email grew (“designed” wouldn’t be the right word). Betamax and VHS again.

        Long term, communication technologies that survive will be those that meet the needs of people. I don’t believe in anything new under the sun in that arena – human evolution is slower than ICT evolution.

  2. Hi Brian
    Not sure if I’m a dinosaur or a template worker-of-the-future (aren’t road warriors going to inherit the earth?), but a lot of my working time is spent in places without connectivity. Planes, of course, but also significant parts of the UK railway network and, since I don’t have an infinite credit card, many hotels and most of overseas. So my main communication tool has to be something that silently collects up incoming messages when it does have connectivity; puts them in a single place on my laptop; lets me view them on a small screen when I’m offline; stores the responses I type and then sends them silently when I have connectivity again. I’ve not found anything that fits that spec anywhere near as well as e-mail – suggestions welcome, though, especially if they let me work on half a dozen project wikis when offline…

    I was highly amused by the Atos coverage. Apparently their staff “waste too much time reading e-mail” so they’re going to use social network platforms instead. And noone *ever* “wastes too much time” on those :-)

    Happy Christmas

    PS What do I see below this comment box? “Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail”! Not dead yet, then ;-)

    • Hi Andrew
      You’ve given another use case for email – for those with limited network connectivity. Interestingly, though, I tend to find that I make increased use of social web services on my mobile devices so that I can access blog posts, maps, tweets, etc. even when I’m offline. For me, the importance of offline use if reducing my use of traditional Web sites, rather than email.

      Note that for several years I have been arguing for greater use of instant messaging for internal use so I don’t see a backlog of trivial messages when I return from holiday or time away. Something like Yammer could provide value, I feel.

      BTW feel free to receive notifications of follow-up comments via email, as email is fine as an alerting tool. But just don’t have the discussion on email!

      All the best


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  4. […] jQuery("#errors*").hide(); window.location= data.themeInternalUrl; } }); } – Today, 4:32 […]

  5. […] The Tech­nol­ogy Ghosts of Christ­mas Past and Present We are approach­ing not only the end of the year but also, if you start count­ing at ’1′ rather than ’0′, the end of the millennium’s first decade. It is there­fore timely to con­sider not only the devel­op­ments which may be influ­en­tial for the next decade (for which I feel that large-​scale col­lab­o­ra­tive and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies will result in Col­lec­tive Intel­li­gence being sig­nif­i­cant for the sec­tor, which will be helped by a con­tin­u­ing trend towards Open­ness) and the new tech­nolo­gies of a few years ago which were ini­tially dis­missed as irrel­e­vant and unsus­tain­able, but are now used by many main­stream users (in Decem­ber 2009 I asked 2009 – The Year Of Twit­ter?; I now won­der when not hav­ing a Twit­ter account will be regarded as odd) but also tech­nolo­gies which have been widely used in the past but now seem to be in decline. […]

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