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What's Going to Replace Email?

The legendary country music singer Robert Earl Keen put out a cult classic first album, "No Kinda Dancer" in 1984, then proceeded to go five years before releasing his next album of new songs. In the interim, when people asked him when he was going to put out another album, he is said to have been in the habit of responding: "What was wrong with the first one?"

Sometimes I think of that response when I hear people clamoring for the demise of email: What, exactly, is wrong with email?

Well, it's got a terrible name, that's for sure. "Email" was a fine name when the contrast was with "snail mail," but that's been so long now that I doubt anyone under the age of 30 can relate to it. Email, to them, is the new snail mail, and snail mail is nothing at all. (Not that using an outline of a 3 ½-inch floppy disk to represent "Save" is any better.)

It's likewise true that nobody's kid uses email today. Every marketer I've ever heard talk about the topic has pointed this out, and they're totally right. I also think that's kind of irrelevant, at least when it comes to business use. My kid doesn't use Salesforce either; but if she got a job as a salesperson, she'd learn it and use it.

I think it's the same with email, which is why businesses are having such a hard time quitting email. It's got a lot of advantages as a business tool. For one thing, it's archival; in the immortal words of George Carlin, it's a place to keep your stuff. As long as email is your default business tool, then everything that came in to you and everything you sent out is there, and you can find it. Outlook's search function works great; if a good search engine can find just what you're looking for on the World Wide Web, it can certainly find exactly that email that you need to get your hands on from last summer, the one where you can remember you emailed Ted about the Baxter account and you mentioned that Lou needed to know when Murray was going to update the pricing.

Email can be clumsy in a situation where any of us today would be in the habit of texting, whether over our phones or on a desktop IM system. But that's why Lync was such an instant success, at least at the level of IM/presence: It built on a tool that was absolutely critical for most people in their daily work lives, and added something that the old tool didn't provide. You didn't have to move away from doing email, you got some added functionality on top of it. I think that people who believe most workers could do their job better if they got rid of email...are probably trying to sell you something.

And that something may be worth buying. It may add communications and collaboration features that let people get work done faster and let them include more people in the collaboration process. But if the idea is that it's going to replace email, I think that's going to be an uphill climb.