Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a lot of attempts to reinvent email. But there’s a problem: Exchange remains dominant, and its odds of going away are slim. Perhaps we’re using email for the wrong things?
As I write this, my number is 19,485 … 484 … 483. It keeps dropping.
Like many iPhone owners, I’ve spent much of my time in the past few days staring at a number on a list, hoping to finally get a spot in the new iPhone app Mailbox of my very own. (With a number that started around 60,000, I’m actually one of the lucky ones. Most people are much further back than that.)
But I know that, when Mailbox’s counter finally gets down to zero and my iPhone explodes with new messages, I won’t be truly happy.
Maybe the issue isn’t email. Maybe you just need a different communication process altogether for certain things.
That’s because, like many people who slog away in the business world, I’ll remain tethered to Microsoft Exchange, an email protocol so dominant in the sphere that it won’t go anywhere in the near future. And unlike Google’s Gmail and Apps platforms, the protocol doesn’t hook into everything. In fact, most attempts to reinvent email in the past few years—from the Google-acquired Sparrow to the multiplatform Postbox to the web-based MailPilot to the upcoming .Mail—have one thing in common. They don’t support Exchange, which means that for many business users, they’re solving somebody else’s problem. (For what it’s worth, Mailbox recently said on Twitter that it’s working on Exchange compatibility, so maybe it’ll be different this time?)
Microsoft’s ongoing foothold on this market is similar to that of Internet Explorer a decade ago. So much infrastructure has been built that any effort to shake that foothold would be disruptive and dramatic for any organization. With 53 percent of all businesses worldwide relying on Exchange for email, according to a recent study by the Radicati Group, Exchange is one of Microsoft’s biggest success stories, and for most people, Outlook (for better or worse) is the horse driving that buggy.
This is great for top-down IT consistency, of course, but the problem is that it may add extra layers of complexity for people looking to get stuff done. In my own case, I have multiple Gmail accounts running at all times, along with a copy of Postbox and a copy of Outlook—either the online version or the desktop one. There must be a better way to keep all of this stuff organized.
On the other hand, maybe the issue isn’t email. Maybe you just need a different communication process altogether for certain things. In recent years, business-oriented social platforms like Yammer have opened up new forms of communication that make more sense for organizations. On the social management front, HootSuite launched something similar last year.
Around the time that HootSuite launched the feature, its CEO, Ryan Holmes, wrote a column for Fast Company, “Email Is the New Pony Express—And It’s Time to Put It Down,” where he derided email altogether.
“Email was never intended for collaborative work,” he writes in one example. “Try setting up a meeting time with a group on email and that becomes painfully obvious. Messages flood in, getting out of sync and leaving users scrolling madly to track the conversation.”
Maybe the problem isn’t that you need “Inbox Zero,” the in-vogue term to describe an empty inbox, as well as a mind cleared of worry about email. Maybe the real issue is that your association needs to find ways to make email one of many options on the table—and for most situations, not necessarily the first one. There are many conversations that happen via email that would make much more sense on Campfire, for example.
Since I started typing this post, my number on that Mailbox list has gone down to 18,126. But the problem still hasn’t gone away. Perhaps that’s because we’re focusing on the wrong issue.