The Road Backwards - Ditching Email for Social Messaging
The Road Backwards - Ditching Email for Social Messaging
For over twenty years email has driven more technical revolutions than virtually any software technology. Email was an early driver in the development of the Internet and business computer infrastructure and continues to this day to drive innovation in areas such as mobile computing and beyond. Email is ingrained in our culture. It is vital to business, community and personal relationships. Email is open and universal and extremely technically resilient. So with all this why is email facing so many questions about its future?
Many say that email is finished. Social network usage is flying off the charts, SMS has become a constant din in our lives not to mention Twitter, IM, Skype and all the other peer to peer messaging solutions. There are more Twitter, SMS and social messages than email messages but to this day it is email that matters most in business. Email can say more, email can send attachments, email is reliable and email is accessible anywhere. Nonetheless, if current trends continue email will be a tool for the old school very soon.
What’s behind this shift? Is there more to it than meets the eye? Does the shift away from email make sense or are we rushing off a cliff as we abandon email? Let’s take a look.
Email has been around for some time. Email was designed when 9600 baud modem lines were high speed and they failed all the time. Email was born in research labs and gradually spread to schools, government, businesses and eventually consumers. The technical nuts and bolts of mail is comprised of many standard technologies governed by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force). The standards for creating, transmitting and accessing email are universal and there are thousands of email related products that interoperate due to the work of the standards committees.
One of the benefits of standardization for society is the opportunity it creates for innovation. Any company can create a product that conforms to a standard and they can be reasonably guaranteed that they will work with other compliant vendors. There are interoperability labs and certification organizations that will guarantee that a product complies with a particular specification. This standards-based approach allowed for the creation of countless businesses that make email servers, clients, servers, disk drives, gateways security, managers, archive, analysis tools and more. The ecosystem around email is staggering and easily exceeds $5 billion worldwide when you include all related email industries.
Like many of the original Internet technologies email was designed with the premise of openness. The assumption was that those who were speaking would want to speak with each other. Email was designed so that any server in the world connected to the Internet can take part in an email exchange. One of the beauties of email is that while the interoperability between systems is high operators can tailor the email user system to their needs and there are many types of email servers and client software because of the standard nature of email. The entire public email system is extremely resilient and distributed across millions of nodes so a failure of the entire system is near impossible and would be indicative of much bigger problems if it were to occur.
While the openness and distributed architecture of email is so vital to its success, it was also a big culprit in the largest gripe against email – spam. Since anyone can send email to anyone on the Internet email is fertile ground for fraudsters. There is a constant cat and mouse game between criminals and security companies but with so many alternatives available to fight spam and viruses it is possible to maintain a safe email environment. We are willing to put up with some garbage email because email’s worth outweighs the annoyance of spam.
One of the other chief complaints and strengths of email is privacy and security. By default email is carried in plain text across the Internet. Anyone can read it who has the tools and desire. This openness supports the universal transmission of email by servers throughout the world ensuring that email can be routed and read anywhere. Of course there are countless tools to secure and encrypt email and this is a relatively solved problem but it has been a major concern about email that was addressed by many.
So email is open, it is standards based, it works well, it has a tremendous ecosystem of companies and experts, it is resilient, it is distributed, it allows for privacy and it creates jobs.
So what’s replacing email and how’s it different. What makes the ‘new’ paradigm better than email? Let’s take a look at Facebook as an example. Facebook is the ‘number one site’ du jour on the Internet and it’s messaging has largely replaced email for teenagers and many young adults. Facebook messaging includes news feeds and inbox messages amongst other mechanisms. News feeds are public and inbox messages are private. We don’t have to worry about spam since we somewhat choose who we communicate with on Facebook but we do have to suffer through constant updates of meaningless information from those we barely know. Of course we have all felt the embarrassment of posting something on a wall without realizing the consequences. Inbox messages are useful but don’t support attachments or sending to users of other social systems.
Facebook, like Twitter and others is built on closed proprietary systems. The protocols that govern the transport, composition and storage of Facebook messages are secret and offer limited points of integration for third parties. Facebook messages remain in the secret Facebook network and remain on the Facebook servers. Unlike email with standards for email storage and flexibility to support many storage models all Facebook messages are stored in unknown locations for unknown amounts of time for unknown uses. The true Facebook message stores are inaccessible to anyone. If Facebook is down there is no resiliency and we are down until Facebook fixes their issues. If Facebook decides to data mine my communications to target the web content I view towards my commercial tendencies I have no way of knowing that the picture I am seeing on the Internet has been manipulated based on my messages.
Another alarming attribute of social messaging is the limitation of only being able to send messages to other users of the system. Twitter users send to other Twitter users and Facebook uses send messages to other Facebook users. In the old days of email an Earthlink customer could send email to an AOL customer or to anyone without any technical knowledge or special tricks. It just worked. Now in the new day of social messaging we can only send messages to subscribers of these systems. While it’s possible to interchange messages between systems it requires technical sophistication or reliance on API’s (Application Programming Interfaces), which we will discuss later.
In Web 1.0 and prior the Internet had multi-vendor standards committees such as the IETF or the IEEE that created protocols and standards for all vendors to follow. These organizations produced such important technologies as Email, HTTP, Ethernet, Cable Modem Standards and TCP/IP, the nuts and bolts of the Internet, and thousands of other technologies that are integral to the functioning of the computer we are using to type, transmit and read this article. Standard protocols developed by many vendors guaranteed interoperability between systems. These committees created documents called RFC’s that anyone can read, comment on and use as a guideline to build a new product. There were certainly many RFC wars between companies throughout the years but there were still committees and some semblance of democracy. Changing an RFC requires a committee vote, meetings, peer review and discussion. Let’s compare this studied process with Web 2.0 and the world of social messaging.
When social messaging systems like Facebook and Twitter need to communicate they use API’s (Application Programming Interfaces). API’s are developed unilaterally by the company providing the API, like Facebook or Twitter. Unlike RFC’s that are free and easily available on the Internet, API’s are governed by unilateral license agreements that can be changed at any time for any reason. An API that is free one day can be billed the next. An application that works today can be rendered completely useless by the sole act of the API vendor. An API that offered unlimited transactions one day can introduce metering or demand payments the next. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if one of the creators of the central email protocol, SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) suddenly demanded payment from every email server operator in the world and he had the ability to shut down non-paying systems. Well this is the power that the API providers have today. If my application wants to speak to a Facebook user I send a message to their API and thank them for their grace in delivering my message for free. Tomorrow they can decide not to deliver my messages, it is their choice, I have no say in the matter. Their API is governed by a licensing agreement, not a standards committee and they make the call.
Rather than showing us a glimpse of the future the shift from email to social messaging has taken us decades back in technology. Many don’t recall but before there was email and internet there were mainframes that were made primarily by IBM. One of the drivers of email was that mainframes had messaging systems and other companies demanded a standard interface to keep messaging from being exclusive to mainframe users. One of the big drivers of the Internet was that businesses didn’t want IBM to control how computers spoke to each other as they did with their once proprietary SNA mainframe protocols. Ironically in our shift from email to social messaging we are heading back to the days of closed proprietary messaging systems that aren’t governed by any multi-vendor standards or agreements. We are creating the same walled gardens of the past with social messaging and the consequences could be severe for the communications infrastructure of society if Facebook or any social messaging titan decides to change the rules.
While IBM had proprietary protocols in the beginning of their dominance they were forced to open up their technology and this created fertile grounds for new companies. This is in stark juxtaposition to the direction of many major API vendors. API’s are becoming more and more closed, more expensive and more difficult to access. Many that gave API keys to anyone now require more registration or payment or agreement. We see no interoperability discussions between Facebook and the IETF nor do we see much cooperation between social companies that has any lasting effect. Without standards each company is free to do what they want, and since all social messaging companies are funded by the same small set of billionaire venture funds, all with the same pressure of mega-returns for investors in their funds, we can be guaranteed that Facebook or other social companies aren’t making decisions that are in the interests of their users, they are bound to their backers.
Certainly there are technical arguments that could be made against any point I have raised, but there is clearly no argument that can be made against the predatory nature of API’s. API’s starve an eco-system because they can easily disappear and the functionality of applications that rely on API’s are typically embedded into the API vendors product if there is demand for the partner product, thus putting the partner out of business. Imagine how all the iPhone Twitter developers felt the day that Twitter announced their iPhone app. It is not safe to build a business on an API without an agreement and these can be near impossible with a Silicon Valley behemoth. So where email fostered an immense ecosystem of successful companies and technicians Facebook, with it’s endless financing, offers a free service that produces virtually zero useful ecosystem partners. Certainly there are games and marketers galore but there aren’t any real opportunities to work with Facebook messages in any kind of meaningful way. Sure there are some free tools to download things but the primary storage is always on Facebook.
Clearly email has its problems due to its own missteps as well. Microsoft, the leader in corporate email, has frustrated countless organizations with high licensing fees and closed end-user systems. In the elegance of the email specification the transport standards are different from the mail user agents standards. Hence Microsoft was able to create a very proprietary user experience while still speaking to the standards based email world. Maybe Microsoft rode the proprietary train a bit too far but frustration with their grip on corporate email has created a lot of upheaval in email that is driving a lot of the changes.
Google, with their billions, is rushing in to give the world free email and spam filtering. Google is upending the paradigm of the open email system by putting huge investments into a free infrastructure for all. Email was designed in a democratic environment and the infrastructure is democratic and dispersed. Google on the other hand is trying to turn email into an autocratic system with Gmail and their market strategy. By pumping billions and billions into an endless open bar of technology we are all enjoying the free cocktail hour nicely. But in order for Google’s bets to pay they need a good portion of the world on their platforms and they know how to do that with a free business model. They have the deepest pockets and they have the tenacity to stick it out in a free market until there is no more oxygen for smaller players. Rather than build a private social network like Facebook, Google decided to take over email with Gmail and it looks like they may be successful. By giving us billionaire technology for free they are creating a proposition we can’t refuse, until we consider the cost of our privacy and moving all of our private information to the control of one company, but that’s for another day.
In closing, as an expert in email and as someone who has been in technology for over twenty years I am quite alarmed about the rise of private, proprietary and sometimes closed messaging systems over the open, standards based, public and free email system. Sure spam was a nuisance but this problem has largely been solved for the end-users. While there’s no question that social messaging is here to stay I think that technical leaders in business, government and community organizations need to take a breath and question our rush to social messaging. There are serious arguments that the changes we are seeing are for the worse. With so many multi-billion dollar bets on the new advertising-driven social messaging world, against the old research-driven Internet world we need to seriously question the motivations for these changes and if their benefits outweigh the potential costs of our freedom of information.
About the Author
Michael Katz is the Founder of Mailspect, a company that specializes in solutions for email defense, archive and business connections. Mr. Katz is an active musical composer and father of three who resides in New Rochelle, NY.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.