Somewhere, someone is building the successor to email, and it is social

Communication technology is constantly evolving, and that has been especially true in the past decade where the social revolution has grabbed and twisted most communications paradigms, but at the same time seemed to leave some unchanged. In the past week I covered a lot of products and announcements that show this strange dichotomy.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of Black Swan, recently made the case for the longevity of well-established technologies, arguing that technology is aging in reverse.  This is a variant of the Lindy Effect, well-explained by Benoit Mandelbrot, that older forms of information — such DNA and ideas — can be expected to persist longer than younger ones. I elaborated on Taleb’s argument, focusing on email. Given the age of email, I suggested we will be using email for at least another fifty years.
Perhaps it was unsurprising, then, to see a lot of activity on the email front.

  • It appears that Google Apps is cutting into Microsoft’s enterprise software business, due to the cost differential, and the willingness of companies to switch from Outlook, Exchange, and Office.
  • I looked at Squadmail, a tool trying to make email more social via shared email folders. I like the idea, but the implementation has a way to go.
  • .Mail is one a wave of new startups attempting to link email with task management, implementing so-called ‘actionsteps’ into the email user experience.

.Mail nudged me to consider what a social email solution might look like, contrasted with today’s ‘naked’ email. Imagine a social tool in which an ongoing email thread — for example with a business customer or prospect — could be treated as a social object, like a document with several sections. Social email users could share that object with others in their workgroup, for example, annotating the thread, and assigning someone in the group to follow-up with the customer. In a sense this would be treating email as the lowest common communication channel — one that doesn’t require adoption of some new tool — while the workgroup would be communicating among themselves at the highest common communication channel: a social coordinative tool in which email is content, not context.
Instant messaging is one of the long-established communications technologies that set the stage for social back in the ’90s, with AOL ICQ and AIM, Microsoft Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger. But these tools have dropped into the background as newer and much more public modes of social communication — like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr — crowded them out. This last week, Microsoft announced it would be turning off Microsoft Messenger on 15 March 2013, and transitioning users to Skype. Skype is really just another instant messenger tool, and not a breakthrough in a social way, but it is a much bigger brand.
There are a number of innovative trends going on in the world of social tools for business, and many seem to share key characteristics, like being small and simple: minimal implementations of a tightly defined use case. We saw several in the last week:

  • Crushpath is a new social selling application, based around two key ideas. First, the visual metaphor of a path to close a deal with a client dominates the user experience for the sales team, and allows communication among the team and with the prospect to be arrayed along the path. Secondly, the tool provides the tools to easily create ‘pitch sites’ — web pages designed to make a sales pitch to a market of prospects, or tightly customized to pitch a specific prospect. Very innovative and intuitive approach.
  • Transporter is a social — or more specifically, peer-to-peer — backup and sharing approach, based on a new hard drive connector that allows transporter units to mirror files. This sync-and-share solution does not require a server from the product’s manufacturers, aside from validation of identities, and so their business model deviates from offering like Carbonite and Dropbox: no monthly fees. You simply buy the device for a flat fee, and then you can store a backup of your family photos on your sister’s transporter-enabled hard drive, or mirror your business data onto a transporter in another building or country.
  • Conceptboard is a new take on collaborative visual thinking, a virtual whiteboard with web conferencing built-in. I think of it as the antidote to Powerpoint presentations online, which can be incredibly boring. More importantly, I think tools like Conceptboard represent the shift from meetings as status reporting to actual working sessions, where people get things done collaboratively.

These innovative experiments suggest how we might see a gradual decrease in our reliance on email: not with a bang, but a whisper. New approaches to specific problems arise, like instant messaging’s real-time synchronous communication, or selling tools that better support communication about deal flow,  or visual web conferencing solutions that allow users to express complex ideas graphically instead of using words, words, words. Over time, each of these advances will divert some proportion of the traffic streaming through our in boxes. Perhaps none so much as work media tools, the enterprise social networks that large businesses are adopting at a steady clip.
My bet is that some solution building on the concept of social email will accelerate our transition away from email, although email will be supported for decades to come. At first, email will continue as a major conduit for communication and coordination, but over time, its use will decrease, like surface mail has. Less and less business-critical communication travels by postal mail everyday, and at some point in the not too distant future you can imagine the last phone bill or sales catalog being delivered to your door. The web has eclipsed the post office, and in the same way, some more open and more social paradigm will eclipse email, as well. We may be seeing the start of that new set of communication principles in these innovative new tools, but I don’t think we have seen more than the barest lineaments of its final form.