Is email still the web’s killer app or is it about to be killed off?

When e-mail was introduced into the workplace in the 1990s it revolutionised business, providing a powerful, low cost communication tool that allowed firms to work more efficiently, provide better customer service and market their goods.

But some are predicting the death of e-mail after Atos Origin, the global IT firm, recently announced plans to become a zero e-mail company within the next three years. Staff will instead be encouraged to use instant messaging, social networks, shared internet and intranet sites, blogs and old fashioned face-to-face meetings to communicate. E-mails will only be tolerated as a means for customers to get in touch.

A sentiment apparently shared by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who famously said in November last year that email would go the way of the letter because it is too slow and informal.

There is also evidence that fewer teenagers are using e-mail, preferring instant messaging and social networks, more often than not accessed on their mobile phones, to contact their friends. According to one study published last year, just 11 per cent of teenagers e-mail daily.

So is e-mail on its last legs? Could its demise be in sight? Simple answer is No.

Its use will undoubtedly decline as we use other media for communicating, particularly amongst social communities, but it still ranks as the number one business application. And for the sake of clarity it needs to be stated that whilst web mail might be in decline, mobile email is very much mainstream and is experiencing significant growth, driven largely by Smartphone and tablet adoption.

In November 2010, 70.1 million mobile users (30 percent of all mobile subscribers) accessed email on their mobile, an increase of 36 percent from the previous year. Daily usage of email showed an even greater increase growing 40 percent as 43.5 million users turned to their mobile devices on a nearly daily basis for their email communication needs. Incidentally this growth was applied across all age segments, proving that the younger generation hasn’t quite given up email just yet.

It all boils down to one simple business premise: If it’s written down it happened. Social media tools such as Twitter are all ephemeral and even when it’s possible to organise and archive your communications; the tools for doing so are so crude as to be virtually useless. Have you ever tried to retrieve, store and organise Tweets?

Organised communication is the lifeblood of any business. That’s why we invest so heavily in CRM and other systems. We need our data at hand and we need to be able to file, store and retrieve it instantly. And more importantly we need our data to be protected, private and totally secure. We also require systems that have guaranteed reliability and service uptimes built into them.

One of the main benefits of using e-mail is that confidential data can be sent without it being accessed by anyone other than the recipient. As the case of Sarah Baskerville, a Department of Transport official whose comments about going to work drunk on Twitter were reported by the national press, recently showed, information posted on social networking sites – even when restricted to ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ – can easily fall into the wrong hands.

As long as businesses require a private – but speedy – channel e-mail still has the edge.Similarly, e-mail provides a means for communicating privately. Last year the website Bullying UK received 8,500 e-mails. Being forced to post queries on a public forum could deter some from coming forward to seek help.

E-mail addresses also remain crucial to marketing. Customers can be targeted cheaply and instantly, and, unlike other forms of marketing, e-mails can be easily and quickly forwarded to friends and colleagues.

A recent survey by cross-channel commerce solutions provider CrossView showed that consumers preferred to receive promotional messages from retailers by email. It was the most popular communications channel, with direct mail drawing about a quarter of respondents and text messaging coming in third with 18%. Just 9% of shoppers were interested in promotional messages on social media.

Few companies who rely on their databases to promote their products will be willing to give up e-mail quite yet.

Likewise, customer service is also still largely telephone and e-mail driven. While more and more companies are using social network sites to interface with customers, such sites are unsuitable for complex issues. Moreover, when customer complaints are received further discussion is inevitably conducted offline. No sensible company wants to engage a public ‘flame’ war with a customer in the full glare of the watching world. There can only be one winner.

The brevity required by instant messaging, and its ‘chat’ format are also unsuitable for professional settings. Email composition forces the author to think about its tone, content and basics such as spelling and grammar, leaving little room for misinterpretation. Just ask the controversial Rapper 50 Cent whether he regretted tweeting comments supposedly encouraging suicide amongst the gay community. An conversely we shouldn’t overlook the value of the time and effort that we place in reading the email that we receive.

Another major business benefit of email is its ability to send and receive large files and attachments instantly. Sure, electronic storage space can become a problem, but third party – or ‘cloud’ – hosting can remove the organisational headaches associated with managing and archiving e-mail services in-house. In fact cloud email systems offer the potential to revolutionize the way businesses, in particular, currently manage their email systems, with the entire service managed in the cloud and at lower cost.

One argument regularly used against email is the levels of spam delivered daily to users. But we are now even seeing reductions in the levels of junk mail as commercial mail filters become more efficient and ironically, the spammers turn their attentions to social media!

The array of communication tools available is larger and more diverse, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that email is dead. Until social networking and instant messaging can reproduce the ease, speed, privacy, functionality and formality of the e-mail, electronic mail will remain king.

When Zuckerberg announced the death of email, he did so on the day that Facebook launched its new alternative to Google Mail. ‘It’s not email. It handles email… along with all the different ways you want to communicate.” he stated.

Funny that, as the features look remarkably like the old email we love and use on a daily basis.

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Phil Worms is the director of corporate communications for iomart Group, one of Europe’s largest providers of managed hosting, cloud computing and business continuity services. Having spent 25 years working in the IT industry he is recognised as one of its brightest thinkers. He regularly contributes internet and "new media" related features for trade publications and national newspapers and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is an advocate of social media using it for both business and charitable causes. Phil has sat on several national advisory committees ranging from the provision of broadband access to online safety initiatives. He is now heavily involved in the debate surrounding the greening of IT with energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction a particular topic of interest. In his spare time Phil is dedicated to raising money in an attempt to bring a new arts and music centre to his hometown of Helensburgh. It is this venture that has given him his finest moment – being mentioned on David Bowie’s official website when he organised a mass community recording of the classic song Heroes!