The death of email

Death of Email

Teenagers are switching off email in their drives. Will it even have a place in tomorrow's workplace? Stewart Mitchell investigates

You have 138 unread messages – and you’ve been away from your desk for only two hours.

Without getting any further than the subject line, 95% of them will be deleted. You’ll reply to two of them, and dump the rest. And these are only the messages the spam filter and folder redirects actually let you see. Is it any wonder that the younger generation has already received the bigger message: email is dying.

It isn’t only the young – with their MSN accounts, BlackBerry Messenger and Facebook pages – that are shunning their inboxes. Amid a wave of newer communication and collaboration tools, some companies are already moving away from the electronic mail system that’s been a mainstay of business for almost two decades.

Is it any wonder that the younger generation has already received the bigger message: email is dying

Technology company Atos recently put into action plans to kill off internal email within two years. The email server may soon be keeping the fax machine company in the basement store cupboard.

According to research from comScore, webmail usage fell by 6% in 2011. The drop-off was much steeper among the young, with usage for 12 to 17-year-olds plunging by 24%.

Although this was mitigated by an increase in mobile email, it reflects a trend that prompted Facebook to exploit email dissatisfaction among teenagers when in 2010 it launched an email-like service for messaging through the social network.

“High-school kids don’t use email, they use SMS a lot,” Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg said at the time. “People want lightweight things such as SMS and IM to message each other.”

For a generation that’s only just got its head around electronic communications, the looming sell-by date on email may be frustrating. Eventually, however, email could become as marginalised a medium as the written letter it’s all but replaced.

Killing the messenger

Email – despite dating back to the early 1970s – has only been a central part of our communications repertoire for fewer than two decades.

Back in 1991, there were only three million accounts, a figure that’s since climbed to more than 3.1 billion, according to figures from eMarketer. Each year there are more than 90 trillion messages sent to and from those accounts. Along the way, it’s almost killed off the fax, and made phone calls a courtesy rather than a necessity.

It sounds irreplaceable, but there are considerable downsides. According to email provider Sendmail, 90% of those messages are spam, and although filters sift out the majority of junk, the average inbox is still peppered with annoying and time-sapping clutter.

A 2010 survey from computer services company Star claimed that one in five UK workers spends more than an hour each day managing their inboxes, which is the equivalent of 32.5 working days per year.

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In defence of email

The time wasted dealing with these emails was one reason behind Atos’ plan to eradicate email from its internal communications by 2013, with CEO Thierry Breton claiming that, on average, staff were receiving more than 200 emails a day – and 15% of them were actually wasting between five and 20 hours a week handling email. Surely, the company reckoned, there must be a better way.

“Email has been adopted as the single tool for everything,” says Rob Price, a director involved with the mail switch-off strategy at Atos. “People spend too long sifting through all the information included in an inbox.”

The emergence of more inclusive, collaborative tools has put the squeeze on email. SMS and instant messaging have long been popular with the younger generation due to their low cost, and also their immediacy. Now perceptions are beginning to change in the workplace.

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Analysis