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E-mail heading for social makeover

Rise of social media and workers demanding such tools in the office is making e-mail more social, but analyst says corporate inboxes will not change within three years.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor on

The rise of social media and an influx of Web 2.0-savvy users entering the workplace are causing corporate e-mail to appear like an outdated technology, according to industry observers.

Vendors that ZDNet Asia contacted are aware of the limitations of today's messaging environment. "E-mail inboxes are inundated with too much information, which is difficult to monitor or extract for corporate knowledge," said Cheong Weng Seng, ASEAN sales executive for Lotus software and collaboration at IBM Software Group, in an e-mail.

"For example, discussions…are better conducted via forums and wikis where information can be tagged and searchable, collaboration history is kept and knowledge is preserved in the enterprise."

Corporate leaders, he added, are increasingly communicating company-wide via blogs, "instead of having their e-mail buried in everyone's inbox".

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As such, newer collaboration tools will take over some e-mail-based activities going forward, said Cheong.

On top of that, younger workers have a "strong preference for progressive and socially-oriented tools" and may not be "accustomed" to using e-mail for interpersonal communication, he said.

"Several of our large customers have told us that it has even become a recruiting and retention issue with their employees," said Cheong. "So it is clear that businesses can't just ignore the new collaboration approaches."

Peter Jakobsen, Cisco's director for collaboration architecture marketing, pointed out that e-mail "is a one-to-few approach and does not offer a real-time interface", despite traditionally being the main platform for collaboration. Other tools, such as instant messaging, are also text-based or document-centric.

However, businesses are increasingly "adopting a much broader collaboration tool set" incorporating video and voice capabilities, and involving more people.

Research from Gartner also suggests enterprises are moving away from e-mail in favor of social media. In a December document authored by eight analysts, the analyst house predicted that social-networking services will replace e-mail as the primary vehicle for interpersonal communications for 20 percent of business users by 2014. This was tempered only by the forecast that 70 percent of IT-dominated social media initiatives will fail over the next two years.

E-mail's social makeover
E-mail, on the other hand, is also evolving to become more social. Integrated inboxes, which bring together various messaging platforms into a single window or inbox, have been in the spotlight the past year. In May 2009, Google unveiled its Google Wave project, touting real-time collaboration as users can edit documents instantaneously.

The Mozilla Foundation is also working on a messaging "aggregator" dubbed Raindrop that will cull from sources, including instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter.

IBM's Cheong noted that at the Lotusphere 2010 conference last month, Big Blue announced "Project Vulcan", the company's blueprint for its Lotus range of products. At the event, he said the company demonstrated techniques for "active" inboxes, where users can "work with content directly, respond inline and see related content".

"We strongly believe that e-mail can and will become more than just a flood of messages all competing for your attention," he said.

Corporate inbox: No change in next three years
Still, an analyst believes it will take years before the corporate e-mail inbox starts to look and feel different.

Richard Edwards, principal analyst at Ovum, pointed out in a phone interview that interoperability between different offerings is a key issue when it comes to extending the reach and range of e-mail. Corporate e-mail systems, he explained, currently offer additional functionality such as calendaring and contacts, which "don't flow particularly well between disparate systems".

To get enterprise e-mail changes going, there needs to be an industry push led preferably by IBM and Microsoft, which together control about 80 percent of the corporate market today, said Edwards. Google making more inroads into the corporate messaging environment would also add to the cause.

"My own outlook for the next two to three years is that corporate e-mail will continue to look and feel the same as it has been for the last 10 years," he said.

"While, on one hand, we have different vendors doing different things in the consumer [e-mail] market, the corporate market won't really do anything other than just watch."

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