I love IM tools, but email isn’t going anywhere anytime soon

I’m sure you, like me, have seen the articles over the years. They come around every so often, with headlines saying “<IM TOOL> is THE email killer”, “Death of email spelled by <IM TOOL>”, and “<GENERATION WHATEVER> says no to email, yes to <IM TOOL>”. I’ve seen these headlines for the better part of two decades. And yet – curiously – email is still around, while many of these tools aren’t. There are a number of reasons why this is so. Some of them are deal with the different paradigms of communication, while others hinge on technological differences

The paradigm reasons

The premise underlying the headlines is that email and IM is an apples to apples kind of comparison. It very much is not. If we’re going to draw comparisons, we should realise that email is to letters what IM is to phone calls. In other words, IM isn’t replacing email because they serve different purposes.

The technology reasons

  • Email is built on a common standard, making it vendor agnostic – IM tools usually use their own standard
  • Email is ubiquitous, and allows communication between organisations regardless of which email variant they use – IM tools may be ubiquitous, but they don’t speak to each other very well
  • Email has several decades of workflows tied to it – IM tools have only really come into their own within the past decade
  • Online identifiers are often built – directly or indirectly – using email
  • When a downstream email server is down, the upstream servers will retry sending – IMs usually fail (with or without notification) when downstream servers are down
  • Email includes concepts for shared mailboxes, as well as distribution lists
  • The federated nature of email means that the security model allow a mission focused response; every organisation can have its own authentication rules, sharing rules, policy restrictions – and if you don’t like how a given organisation does things, you can block them.

All of this combines to make email a relatively robust mode of communication. I would argue that with the advent, proliferation, and improvement in UX of webmail, it has become even more robust. I would argue that the most clear-cut argument that email has a role to play still is the fact that, when Facebook went down due to BGP/DNS issues earlier this year – which took out badge readers, phones, chat clients etc – the fallback solution was email.

There may come a day when email is replaced, and that day may come sooner than we think. Until that day, however – and likely for a good, long while after that day has come – I’m FAR more likely to shut down my account with any given IM tool than I am to shut down my email account.

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