Cast your minds back to 2015 when Slack burst onto the scene. It was billed as a ruthless “email killer”, set to change the future of work. But in 2019 we all continue to regularly send and receive emails: in fact, the volume of emails being sent is growing, not shrinking.
As of 2019, an estimated 188 million emails are sent every minute - a recent Radicati Group study reported more than 3.8 billion email users in 2019, which is more than half the population of the planet and over 100 million more than the previous year. It’s also twice as many users as the most popular messaging app Whatsapp, with emails playing a pivotal role in facilitating day to day communications around the globe. Many naysayers proverbially sent email to the internet scrapheap years ago, so this is exciting stuff for an age-old function.
When we think about it, it makes perfect sense that we are seeing a resurgence in interest in technologies from a far simpler time. Users have become jaded with modern messaging; fatigued from countless data breaches, attacks on personal privacy, and the endless stream of messages originating from the different chat products we’re all required to interact with on a daily basis. Fun add-ons such as the stickers, gifs, and singing birthday messages available in Facebook’s Messenger are all well and good, but who amongst us can say that we wouldn’t just prefer to be able to message a friend without cajoling them to download or switch over to yet another app.
This issue of interoperability has plagued modern messaging services. Communication, whether for business or leisure, necessitates a certain amount of openness to function - a requirement currently denied by the siloed models of today’s top industry players. Whilst Whatsapp and Messenger allow users to move between other platforms incorporated within Facebook’s own silos, neither app enables communication with those outside of the system. This means that external users must either switch to the same application, removing user choice and competition, or all users must migrate to another platform, potentially resulting in data loss during transfer and simply moving the issue elsewhere. Both options are irritating at the very least, not to mention catastrophic if data is breached or lost.
Not just a matter of principle
It is in situations like this where humble email comes into its own. Unlike other messaging services, email can operate without the need for silos. Email users are able to message other users regardless of their service provider, bypassing the “lock-in tactics” of operators looking to entrap their customers’ data and ensure continued use. With the largest addressable user base of any messaging product by far, email communication offers the easiest, simplest way to connect the most people possible. By side-stepping the silo, email allows users the freedom of movement which formed a crucial part of the web’s founding philosophy.
However, using email is not just a matter of principle. Closed, proprietary messaging services represent a real and genuine threat to user privacy. Siloed networks offer zero transparency when it comes to where data is stored, who owns it, and what companies are doing with it. The provider knows everything about you; from who you message and how frequently, to the contents of your messages. These types of messaging products strip users of their right to own their own data, whilst being vague and opaque as to how they will monetise and distribute your personal information. In an age where Silicon Valley’s wider reputation lies in tatters, there is little to suggest that we should trust providers such as Slack and Facebook any more than we would an email provider.
Relying on single source code, siloed services also have limited resistance to cyber attacks, and are major targets for malware due to their vast repositories of captured data. Once signed up to one of these providers, users have little choice as to how they use the service. Service providers depend on rules set by the messaging owner and access to the API for participation, meaning that if the messaging provider changes the terms and conditions, or limits access to the API, users have no choice but to accept the terms if they don’t want to lose all of their data.
Users want privacy and functionality
Ultimately, users want privacy and functionality from messaging products. Motivational messages from ‘Your friends at Slack’ are nice, but in the end, secure, reliable, and functional email will win out.
Emails are not immune to cyber attacks and data breaches - who amongst us hasn’t received a suspicious email promising endless riches from the death of one of our long lost relatives… However, on the whole, email offers a more secure method of personal communication, along with increased protection from corporate data siphoning. Of course, there are messaging apps such as Signal, whose sole function is to provide an extremely secure method of encrypted communication between end users. However, these apps are by no means ubiquitous, and still present issues when it comes to data portability.
Whilst emails in their current iteration are more than fit to challenge modern messaging products, there are currently developments in the pipeline which could see email completely overhaul how we communicate today.
One possibility would be to create messaging functions similar to Whatsapp and Messenger, which could be run over existing email infrastructure and servers. In theory, this would allow users to contact anyone with an email address using their preferred provider. Emails and messages would be combined in one location, and users would be able to switch providers if unsatisfied with the service. For the particularly security conscious, this approach could also allow users to create and run their own private email service from their home. By hosting a private service, both businesses and individuals could protect their data from third party monitoring and distribution, whilst also adding security tools such as end-to-end encryption. If implemented, these kinds of technologies would allow for the creation of a secure, federated, permission-less chat application, and could spell the end for siloed and secretive closed messaging platforms.
Rafael Laguna is CEO and founder, Open-Xchange