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September 27, 2011


State of Email: Present and Future

By Larry Walsh

A bedrock institution of American life is on the verge of collapse. The U.S. Postal Service, a quasi-government business that traces its roots back to the Colonial era, is facing economic ruin as its cost of operations are outstripping its revenue by as much as $7 billion a year to date.

Eroding the Postal Service’s viability isn’t just labor contracts and its extensive network of post offices, but the continued decline in “snailmail” by consumers and businesses. At one time, the USPS processed more mail than any other similar agency in the world. Over the last five years, mail volume has declined by 43 billion pieces annually, most in the first-class category.

The chief culprit is email.

For much of the last decade, email has been steadily replacing standard letters for business correspondence, billing and personal communications. The Radicati Group this week released a report that shows the average business email user sends 41 emails a day on average and receives 100. More than half of those emails contain an attachment.

No wonder the postal service is under financial pressure and considering the closing of thousands of outlets and ending Saturday service.

But blaming email may not be the only culprit. Even email – the killer app that made the Internet the communications vehicle it is – is under pressure too by social media and alternative communications. While email has consistently comprised 80 percent of Internet traffic, it’s beginning to show signs of giving away to other channels. Evidence is seen in spam, which makes up nearly 80 percent of email traffic, and that’s on the decline and has been for the last two years.

Some prognosticators are saying email will give way to Twitter, Facebook and other social communications. Perhaps, but not necessarily. Email remains the preferred form of communications, even as people engage in more use of SMS texting and messages through social platforms. But email is quickly incorporating social tools as part of its feature sets. IBM Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange/Outlook and Google’s Gmail have each added elements of social feeds and instant messaging to their platforms.

Email’s resiliency to competitive technologies is seen in the transition to cloud computing. While many experts believe cloud computing is the model of the future, the most widely adopted cloud technology is email. That’s because email remains indispensible to business operations and communications.

For those who believe email will give way to some new technology, think again. Email may commoditize, but it’s not going away. The real question on the future of email is not whether or when it will go away, but what new forms and features email will take on.

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