A lot of what we do today involves email and working in teams. In this context, it is interesting to see how things have changed in the last few years, and what can be done to make people more productive using available and coming technologies.
According to a recent study by United Messaging, there were a total of 891 million mailboxes in the world at the end of 2000 (a growth of 67% from the previous year), making email the most successful communications technology since the television. The figure includes corporate email boxes (using software like Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes), ISP mailboxes, Web mail (from service providers like Yahoo and Hotmail) and wireless mailboxes. The US with 5% of the world’s population has nearly half of the world’s mailboxes, so there is still plenty of growth that is likely to happen in the coming years.
Yet, email by itself has had only a few changes in the past decade. The biggest changes have been:
- Shift from a text-based interface to a graphical interface, piggybacking on the growth of Windows and the Web
- HTML Email, allows for emails to be embedded links and images, allowing for richer formatting of emails. It is, however, hard to actually create HTML documents to be sent as email
- Address Book, allows for communications with a lot more people by storing email addresses (in many cases, automatically, and embellished with name completion when sending email)
- Attachments support, allows for almost anything to be sent via email, through the MIME protocol
- Filtering (which few use), allows for automated management of incoming emails
During the same time, the number of emails that people receive and send has multiplied exponentially. There are so many more people to communicate with. For many, email, more than the browser, has become the real window to the Internet. Also, the growth in a real-time variation of email, Instant Messaging, has been even faster. In the years to come, the number of emails and instant messages that we are expected to process is likely to increase even more, with the growth in devices connected to the Internet.
A view from Gordon Moore, Intel’s co-founder, on the change being brought about by email (as quoted in a New York Times interview):
What keeps me up at night is doing my own e-mail. I wouldn’t say anything keeps me up at night worrying. Anything that changes – in a dramatic way – the way we do things, requires us to give up doing things that may have been attractive before. I’m amazed to see how many people working at Intel are sitting at terminals pushing buttons where previously they may have been working together. I guess that does introduce a kind of an isolation but it sure is an effective way to do things, essentially 24 hours a day. It gives a lot of capability for which there is a sacrifice. I’m not sure it sacrifices much more than did the introduction of the automobile assembly line, where employees could see each other but not hear each other. I’m not sure it’s a qualitative difference.