The author of this post argues the point that email is dead and that IM is the solution. I disagree. There are two elements of email that made it become a dominant form of communication in such a short period of time. It allows us to communicate asynchronously and its design centers on message persistence.
Take the telephone as an example. To enhance this synchronous form of communication we added receptionists and call forwarding and in order to have persistence we needed voice mail and even “sticky notes.” Synchronous communications are inherently disruptive, relying on all parties participating in the same activity at the same moment. This is just one of the reasons we view meetings as necessary evils.
Instant Messaging’s early adoption was among uber-geeks who were online a lot. But its adoption lagged behind email adoption among the occasionally connected. I used ICQ two years before AOL started getting into IM because that’s what my friends used. Similarly, chat rooms gained widespread adoption before IM because it was easier to find like-minded strangers online than it was to find your friends and family. IM took off as Internet adoption made it more likely your friends and family were online too. Today IM is hailed as the primary electronic communication mechanism among teens. This may be because they spend so much time available for communications and because they have a lesser need to persist their messages.
So that brings to mind the issue of persistence. Email is a file transfer system and individual emails are actually separate files, in most cases. A system like this is inherently geared to allow for message persistence and simplifies organization. Email could have been designed to restrict transfer between organizations and individuals, such as a clearinghouse or other opt-in system but its widespread adoption would have been crippled by these complexities. Sure we complain about spam and email clutter but this is more an issue of too much of a good thing hinting at the need for evolution.
IM is a replacement for vocal communications because it is synchronous and lacks persistence. Teenagers do not care about saving their messages, usually, but we in business secretly love this about email. We deride emails we see as being sent exclusively as CYA (Cover Your A**) messages. But this is an important element of email. It is harder to you to forget to do things with email and, more importantly, it is harder for other people to forget to do things you have asked them to do. Persistence increases accountability even when we, and our lawyers, wish that it did not.
This is why corporate IM will never supplant email in professional communications. The replacement for email is not IM it is something that we have not seen yet. Maybe it will look more like unified messaging that allows participants to switch among different communication mechanisms at any point in a conversation instead of being tied to the type of communication selected at the beginning of the conversation. Another element of next generation communication will include a mechanism to persist your contact information as you move and age. Email, mail and telephones all struggle with connecting people across stages in their lives and that is one of the reasons we have turned to blogs, personal web sites and social networks.
No, email is not dead; it is a step along the way. But, what replaces it will look more like email than IM.