Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, April 28, 2006

Will Instant Messaging Replace Email As Your Communication And Messaging Platform?

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Could instant messaging become a strong contender to traditional email for text-based communications in the near future?

Inside any instant messenger, just like inside my favorite e-mail application, I have a list of contacts to which I can send messages to, so why can't IM seriously consider to replace my Outlook inbox?

Photo credit: Lenm

" surveyed 1,000 readers and a staggering 52 per cent of those said they believe IM is faster and more efficient than email - but only 3.4 per cent thought it would eventually replace email altogether."

This was in October 2003.

But are things still the same today?

Before I attempt to answer that question, let me share with you which were the motives back then for not considering IM more seriously:

"...the reasons why 76 per cent of respondents say they believe IM complements but will never replace email are manifold.

Most notable is the fact that 27 per cent of respondents believe IM is impractical for conducting business - often because of perceived security issues and a lack of accountability and recordable audit trails in consumer IM packages.


Another reason IM may never replace email is because 22.4 per cent of respondents see it as a "time wasting menace in the office". That's not to say email isn't, but with one such distraction in the office some employers feel they are already losing too much of their staff's time without allowing access to IM as well."

Source: - Will IM ever replace email?

Photo credit: Hank Leerssen

In another major research study conducted last year by Pew, 12- to 17-year-olds and their guardians were asked to provide information as to what teens do when online.

"Teens who participated in focus groups for this study said that they view e-mail as:

a) something you use to talk to "old people", institutions, or

b) to send complex instructions to large groups.

When it comes to casual written conversation, particularly when talking with friends, online instant messaging is clearly the mode of choice for today's online teens."

Source: - The future of email

Email has become for most, a liability more than an asset.

The most popular email applications (Microsoft Outlook) have become monstrous, overgrown, bloated applications which are often complex to learn and manage, while the email-based plague of junk email, spam, viruses, trojans and malware of all kinds keeps riveting through the global email infrastructure like hot chocolate on ice-cream.

People now waste huge blocks of time to navigate through the hundreds of email junk messages that even spam filter can't capture.

And then more time is wasted checking that the cops did the right job too. Did the spam filter out my good email?

But how many hundreds of messages do you need to go through, to do that?

Does that cost serious time and money to companies?

You bet.

So why are companies, and to a lesser extent, individuals, resisting still the evolutionary opportunity that IM could provide them?

Most arguments claiming that instant messaging can't be ever an efficient email replacement are generally based on the following key points:

a) IM is not secure enough.

b) You cannot send messages to the other person unless sHe is online.

c) After you close a text messaging window all communication is lost unless you first save it to a separate file. No audit trails.

d) IM is only for chatters and people who have nothing else to do. Professionals don't use IM.

e) IM is based on too many different and incompatible networks. You need an IM for each one.

But in reality, while some of these arguments did hold up until some time ago, now most of them have no qualification to exist anymore. Only very few obstacles prevent today IM from becoming a rapidly superseding platform for all text-based communications that will significantly complement and in some cases even reply, traditional email.

Let me go through them one by one:

a) IM is not secure enough.
Generations of new IM systems have proven again and again that instant messaging can be as secure as anything else. Skype itself encrypts all communications

b) You cannot send messages to the other person unless sHe is online.
Not true anymore. Skype, among other IMs, allows you to send messages to a person that is either not visible or even offline. The messages are delivered to the recipient the next time sHe comes online.

c) After you close a text messaging window all communication is lost unless you first save it to a separate file. No audit trails.
Trillian, Skype and others have done already good progress in making it possible to archive and make easily accessible all of the messages exchanged through your favorite IM. Though this is not yet as sophisticated and feature-rich as some desktop email applications, the bridge separating the two worlds does not seem insurmountable.

d) IM is only for chatters and people who have nothing else to do. Professionals don't use IM.
Same was said about all new technologies that disrupted the established players.
Skype for business? they screamed.... look at them today. They all use it.
Blogs? They are for teens only! ....for teens only? I guess time has well proven that blogs can be a bit more than only personal teenager diaries.
So the early applications of these tools, should not be considered to be a significant factor for leveraging the true benefits of these tools for more intelligent uses.

e) IM is based on too many different and incompatible networks. You need an IM for each one.
Things are changing on this front as well, and either via the willful choice of adopting open standards (Google Talk), or by providing open APIs to proprietary IM engines (Skype), or by doing the dirty work of bringing together incompatible protocols (Trillian) a majority of the players in this space are working hard at resolving this issue in a way that benefits all involved.

But what are then the unique benefits that future IM systems could provide if utilized in preference of traditional email?


a) Immediacy.
That's what instant messaging is so great about. The ability to instantly send a message to someone. How these should be managed on the receiving end, obviously requires care and an order of different coordination and privacy controls than the ones we have now available.

b) People-centric: not message-centric.
In an instant messenger your conversations are based around people, groups you create, and not aroud who wrote you a message last. You see the people that matter to you, and if you want the conversations connected to them.

c) Presence awareness.
You see who is online, who is available, who is busy without needing to interrupt or contact them.

d) Easier and more straightforward to use.
Born in a different age than traditional email applications, instant messengers have been born small, simple and unobtrusive by definition. Using an instant messenger is as simple as being able to click on a person name to send her a message.

e) No need for a dedicated app.
Just like email has been showing for quite a few years now, to do effective instant messaging you don't need to have a dedicated app (though there can be benefits to doing so). Web-based solutions are springing up that make it possible to access all of your IM accounts from one unique web-based interface. Traditional major IM players already had been providing IM access via the web for quite some time (e.g.: Yahoo Web Messenger, MSN Web Messenger, AIM Express)

f) Extends direct real-time communications to mobile phones, smartphones and PDAs.
Instant messaging extends naturally to mobile phones and PDAs allowing also people on the move to easily remain in touch with their network of contacts. Today, people on instant messaging networks can easily communicate with individual on mobile phines (via SMS) or on many other types of mobile devices.

g) Less spam, more privacy (if right features are added).
I personally use IM 24/7, and am on all major networks including Skype, YM, AOL IM, MSN and ICQ and thanks to the privacy settings already available in my instant messaging clients I do not receive any spam, junk or unrequested messages. I have read that this has not been the case for everyone, but it seems also that give the proper precautions anyone can easily prevent others from contacting her on IM if so desired. Not so with email.

h) Greater ability to express oneself (through emoticons, sounds, avatars, animated video-icons and more.)
Email is only text. Instant messaging has been integrated visual emoticons, sounds, "environments", avatars and other audio/visual facilities that can greatly enhance the communication capabilities provided by text-based communication tools. Everyone of you knows how easy it is to get misunderstood after a passionate email message, as text only can't express the nuances of your thought and the expressivity you normally add when presenting them face to face.

i) Send large files directly to your colleague or buddy around the world.
Sending large files is not a limit anymore. Avoid going through the limits of your IP provider. If you are inside an enterprise you can use much less resources to send the same amount of data.

l) Escalate easily to other levels of rich communication: real-time text chat, voice, video.
When in an instant messaging session, I can easily choose to switch-on voice, and even video, if the conversation requires it. I am not locked into one communication modality. In fact, I can use all three simultaneously whenever I need most the effective communication environment with another party.

m) Leverage direct P2P communications.
Instant messengers are prevalently P2P tools, allowing direct communication between peers, without the need to go through a central server. Using P2P instead of a relayed communication infrastructure seems to be able to provide tremendous opportunities in terms of exchanging large quantities of data or accessing huge data files without the resource requirements that existing systems demand.

n) Can easily integrate support for RSS.
Instant messengers, whether web-based or not, can easily be made to integrate RSS reading capabilities. Since a good 50% of our daily email reading is based on distributed content like newsletters and bulletins that we have subscribed to, switching those email subscription patterns to RSS-based distribution mechanisms will be a rather natural step. And once IM and RSS subscription meet, only the twenty years-long inertia of the email system will remain to justify email extended use.
But since IM systems will soon read into your email directly, this is not going to be even an issue.

o) Facilitates emergence of autonomous online communities.
Communities tend to form around interests and conversations built around them. Instant messaging, makes conversations easy and allows you to select and group people and their related conversations according to your own view.

But yes, it is also true that some of these benefits can only be realized if and when major IM providers will:

a) provide more compatibility and open APIs to their instant messaging networks

b) add extra key features that would enable Im to become a more effective messaging platform for formal and informal communications

And specifically, what Instant Messaging applications can do to start posing a more serious challenge to email today is to start making the following additions to their tools sooner rather than later :

a) Automatic archival of all IM text exchanges with associated relevant metadata.

b) Archival management facilities to sort, access, catalogue and find messages.

c) Stronger privacy protection features.
What messages do I see and when do I see them. What contacts can interrupt me and which ones not. Different levels of notifications and more.

d) Stronger privacy features connected to presence awareness.
Ability to show yourself available only to selected people and not to all your contacts. Alerts that alert you when certain people become available.

d) Ability to manage messages sent when recipient or sender are offline.

e) Audit trails.

f) Create a seamless continuum between asynchronous and synchronous, real-time messages.

g) Allow the user to decide what level of communication is appropiate each time, without needing to fire up a different application for each one.

Google own GMail + integrated GChat beautifully shows that moving in this direction is already an official strategy for the leading information management company out there.

Expect to see IM to "add to", and gradually replace email, without ever killing it, just like the telephone, the fax and then email did to traditional physical mail exchanges.

What do you think?

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posted by Robin Good on Friday, April 28 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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