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Why are we still using email in the age of instant messaging?

woman typing on laptop at desk
(Image credit: Unsplash)

Dating back to the 1960s, email is a veteran of the digital age. It’s a wonder that email isn’t already consigned to the ‘not quite dead yet’ wry humor that surrounds faxes, telexes and telegrams. It is slow and frustrating, with delayed and crossed responses,  and woefully insecure. 

Yet email remains the principal digital communication in the vast majority of workplaces. It’s not down to inertia. Modern workplaces are both innovative and keen to improve productivity. Indeed, ironically, it’s the dynamism of the workplace that makes clunky old email so valuable.

Email remains a ‘killer app’ because users can send messages to anyone, anywhere, via any email provider. And that’s crucial because the workplace is an ever-evolving ecosystem that spans internal staff, freelancers, contractors, partners, stakeholders, suppliers, outsourcers and customers. 

Email’s huge advantage is that it’s ubiquitous and is implemented as an open standard protocol. No matter which mail provider, and whether you use Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail, Gmail, Thunderbird or Yahoo; they all interoperate. That is not the case with email’s supposed replacements. And from the organization’s point of view, email provides sufficient validation that people are who they say they are and provides an audit trail of discussion and decision-making.

However, the increasing amount of email-targeted cyberattacks, such as the Microsoft Exchange hack, highlight its vulnerability. According to research from Verizon, email is responsible for the delivery of 94% of malware. This is because the vast majority of email lacks critical security features, like end-to-end encryption (E2EE). Therefore, email servers create an open target for hackers to access confidential corporate information. 

Organizations that recognize the insecure nature of email look towards real-time collaboration tools to solve this problem. But traditional messaging apps and collaboration tools can cause more problems than they solve.

The feature that $$$ meant tech forgot 

Messaging apps and collaboration tools broke into the mainstream at a time when no one really questioned their proprietary, centralized model. Backed by venture capital, companies sought the opportunity of first-mover advantage and the network effect.

Apple, Facebook, Google and everyone else rushed to build proprietary stacks to get their product out first, lock users in and competition out. What we’re left with is real-time communications that are - perversely - not very good at communicating outside of their own walled garden.

WhatsApp users can only contact another WhatsApp user; it’s Signal to Signal, Slack-to-Slack and Teams-to-Teams. That’s not real-time communication that helps ecosystems thrive; it’s self-interested vendors trying to win the marketplace.

When you stop to think, it’s crazy these platforms don’t work alongside each other. Not only that, but even when two organizations have, say, Slack in place it still requires a level of admin support you’d never require for email and - outside of pretty mean limits - triggers additional license fees.

If that isn’t bad enough, traditional collaboration tools, such as MS Teams and Slack, are also not end-to-end encrypted; leaving conversations just as unprotected as those had in email.

The centralized and unencrypted design of these vendors also makes them next to useless for security-sensitive government use and many regulated markets. By design, a centralized system sucks up user data that gets stored on the service provider’s servers; servers most likely outside of the organization’s own country. The lack of real-time communication in government is not down to a lack of will; it’s because a government can’t have its data processed or stored by a foreign-owned service provider. 

End-to-end encryption is available within messaging apps, such as Signal and WhatsApp, making them more secure than email. However, once again, they are centralized walled gardens making them of little use for organizations that need a high level of security.

Back to the future  

Technology wasn’t always like this. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the web, it was open and decentralized. Quite the opposite to much of today’s web and the centralized world of messaging apps and collaboration tools.

Today’s workers are trying to get their jobs done but, with multiple notifications pinging around their screens at any one time, it’s hard to keep track of conversations. Constantly switching between proprietary apps like Zoom, Signal, Slack and MS Teams is annoying and causes confusion. 

Users simply want to interact with others quickly, while organizations need a clear audit trail of what was discussed. The ubiquity of emails, but with the speed of messaging and the real-time co-working offered by collaboration tools.

The future of connected communication  

An open, decentralized communication network enables exactly that. It is transforming the way organizations communicate and collaborate.

Instant messaging interoperability is finally achievable, through an open standard, such as Matrix. An open standard that supports self-hosting to preserve data sovereignty, end-to-end encryption and interoperability. And one that could in future extend to exchanging mail as well as messages.

organizations have the ability to connect with any other Matrix-based user without license fees or IT admin overhead. Bridges between the Matrix protocol and proprietary apps demolish the walls that maintain proprietary gardens. Social media platforms, the telephone network; all digital comms can operate from a common standard, empowering people to connect on one interoperable system. 

The interoperability between these platforms honors the EU’s Digital Markets Act which aims to ensure the openness of important digital services by preventing users from being locked in. This legislation is a significant win for consumers and businesses as they will now be able to choose a messaging app and collaboration tool based on what it offers, not who it offers. 

The struggle to provide meaningful real-time collaboration tools with outside parties is why email has remained so prevalent in the age of instant messaging. But change has arrived. An open, decentralized network benefits from being able to support interoperability between millions of users, making it well suited to the largest organizations and their entire ecosystem. Long gone are the days of being forced to switch between siloed systems.

Email may never die, but open-sourced and decentralized technologies will guide the way for the instant messaging and collaboration tool market. Interoperability is the key and Matrix is the open communication layer of the web that organizations have been looking for.

Amandine Le Pape, Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Element

Amandine Le Pape is the Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of the secure messaging app, Element. Amandine is an engineer that previously set up and led product management for the Unified Communications line of business within global communications company Amdocs and she has more than 10 years of experience in mobile services and telecommunications.