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Addressing the Problem With Email, At Long Last

We assume voice communications has declined over the past few years because so many more-efficient alternatives now exist -- we call less often, but yet are more in touch with our colleagues, friends, and family than we've ever been. Email use, on the other hand, is not on the decline despite being far from an ideal means of communications.

Email, in fact, is growing as a clearinghouse for alternative forms of communications. For example, voicemails appear in my email Inbox, as do alerts from social networks and, even worse, the online shopping receipts, travel confirmations, and other results of my daily activities.

It's not uncommon for the modern knowledge worker to receive more than 100 emails a day -- a constant barrage of communications representing all levels of priority, from all types of relationships. Somehow we are expected to be on top of our Inboxes, current on all conversations with responsiveness as warranted.

Because email is so congested, we do resort to simpler means of communications such as IM and SMS. These short bursts often get priority, and now many enterprise systems retain all of these conversations as well.

Real-time communications tools and applications have become so good and so ubiquitous that they're actually resulting in a breakdown in communications. "Where is the document you sent? Dropbox? Email? Skype?" "No, I didn't get your message. Where did you leave it?" It's difficult enough finding something sent the same day -- having to locate the record of an interaction from a few months ago can be downright daunting.

But, we accept this in the name of productivity. Things are changing quickly. That's the new normal -- unless you're talking about email. It's utterly shocking how little email has evolved. The client has changed a bit, but after an email arrives we still Archive, Delete, Reply, Reply All, or Forward it. All day every day.

A bigger problem is that email is exclusive, and not in a good way. We send messages to specific people. The conversations are private as are the conversation histories. Don't you hate when someone forwards a message without permission? Replies tend to stick with the same exclusive list of recipients, even when not appropriate. This behavior creates cc: noise for those who don't care, but more importantly excludes participants that may care. Email inefficiency spreads like a Reply All virus.

If each email message is a proverbial straw, when will -- or when did -- the back break? The good news is that communications vendors are now properly recognizing email as a problem. The bad news is its ideal replacement will be something new -- meaning unfamiliar. Google Gmail and Microsoft Outlook provide nearly the same functionality, but nuances make one familiar and the other alien. Adapting to new functionality and with a new interface will be much harder.

In the past two months, several vendors have taunted us with new approaches. Google and IBM have introduced fresh new takes on email, while a new category of team communications has emerged from traditional enterprise communications vendors.

Google Inbox
Google is currently testing Inbox by Gmail, the design of which appears to be influenced by productivity consultant David Allen and his Getting Things Done. Each message has three quick actions: Pin (star), Snooze, and Done (archive) -- all of which retain the message. Deleting mail is actually a two-step process.

Inbox by Gmail's most notable features are pinning and bundling. Pinning keeps a message on top. This is a fairly radical change from the default most-recent-on-top approach. A pinned message stays on top until unpinned. Inbox attempts to bundle messages such as a purchase confirmation and its subsequent shipping notification.

Unfortunately, Inbox is not nearly as comprehensive as Gmail, so will make the transition difficult for users once Google does make it available to them. Inbox, for example, does not include Contacts or Tasks.

IBM Verse
Initially announced about a year ago as MailNext, IBM Verse (as in "con-verse-sation") represents a significant (and strategic?) move for IBM. While packaged as email, Verse is actually a much broader attempt to improve overall communications with a new take on workflow.

Mail Verse includes a dashboard for action items and people, thus offering an Inbox with a social element. Users have the ability to snooze, filter, search, and share messages, as well as to share blogs. Verse also enables the discovery of more information about the people with whom you're communicating

Unify Circuit & Cisco Project Squared
Introduced within weeks of each other, Unify's Circuit and Cisco's Project Squared social collaboration services share several things in common. These tools live in a new space that overlaps IM, video as a service, and social networking.

Unify's Circuit utilizes WebRTC in Chrome or Firefox. It currently acts as a stand-alone service intended for intra-organizational conversations; future editions will integrate with complementary solutions such as unified communications. It is available today for a free trial, and then runs $14.95 per user monthly.

Cisco's Project Squared, technically in beta, is currently available for free. It includes real-time and asynchronous communications, but unlike Circuit does not include presence. Project Squared also uses WebRTC, but currently relies on the Firefox browser to ensure compatibility with other Cisco solutions such as WebEx and TelePresence. Project Squared fosters team collaboration within or among organizations.

These products facilitate and record ongoing multimodal conversations, and do so in an inclusive manner that invites collaboration. Conversations are posted in a forum, and, yes, there are permissions about who can see what, but they tend to be more generous because this mode is less disruptive than email. Participants can check in on the conversation as they please. Additionally, the archived history is accessible to invited newcomers, and preserved for search. The tools have the potential to become centralized communications hubs for daily workflow, which will effectively reduce reliance on email.

A Slew of Others
The answer to email is to be determined, but the search for the solution has picked up dramatically. Besides the offerings mentioned above, a host of other solutions are available and ready to help you make a dent in your Inbox. Here's a quick list of six more.

    -Biba, for real-time collaboration
    -Clutter for Outlook, featuring Filter, Sweep, Move to, and instant actions
    -Evernote, for creating project workspaces
    -Glip, for team productivity
    -Quip, a mobile productivity suite
    -Slack, a platform for team communications

-Biba, for real-time collaboration
-Clutter for Outlook, featuring Filter, Sweep, Move to, and instant actions
-Evernote, for creating project workspaces
-Glip, for team productivity
-Quip, a mobile productivity suite
-Slack, a platform for team communications

Do you have a favorite email alternative? Let's discuss in the comments section below.

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