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E-mail mania: Why does everyone want to be your inbox?

For a messaging medium that is reportedly dead, there sure is a lot of interest in e-mail these days. The lowly inbox has some mojo or it wouldn't attract the Web's heaviest hitters.
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Written by Larry Dignan on

For a messaging medium that is reportedly dead, there sure is a lot of interest in e-mail these days.

Why? E-mail is the stickiest of applications. For Web sites like AOL and Yahoo, e-mail alone can keep users in the fold. Simply put, you can't have a massive scalable top 5 Web property without e-mail. Sure, some folks will say e-mail is dead---to be replaced with Tweets, life streams and other more current messaging systems---but the reality is most of use e-mail daily and will keep on using it.

To wit:

Simply put, the death of e-mail is greatly exaggerated. If e-mail was toast do you really think these companies would be trying so hard to reinvent it?

That's why the talk of Facebook's launch of an e-mail system Monday borders on comical. Some say Facebook is going to be a Gmail killer! Umm, OK. The reality: Facebook's inbox isn't going to kill anything. Google's Gmail will continue to chug along with search, threads and a priority inbox that's handy. So Facebook will kill Yahoo and Hotmail right? Not quite. Yahoo and Hotmail have history on their side---I'm not going to kill a Yahoo account that has more than a decade's worth of stuff lying around just to have some ldignan@fb.com account (or ldignan@facebook.com).

If you don't believe that history and e-mail matters just look at AOL. AOL announced its Project Phoenix, a revamp of AOL Mail that's not too far behind Yahoo's overhaul, just to let you know it still has an inbox for you. AOL gets 45 percent of its page views from e-mail. AOL properties have roughly 100 million unique visitors a month.

Instead of yapping about Facebook killing e-mail, the question we should be asking is why Facebook needs an inbox when you could argue it already has one under its messages tab. Does Facebook need folks to stick around more? Will e-mail bring more frequency? Are social networks not enough to keep folks around? Will e-mail encourage people like me---I go to Facebook less each month---to stop by more?

With all this hubbub about e-mail it's worth highlighting a few big issues. Among them:

When does e-mail system fatigue set in? Like most folks, I have my share of email accounts. I have Gmail, Yahoo Mail and my work account. I've refrained from getting a Hotmail account only because I have the other two. Ditto for AOL. So now Facebook is going to allow me to use its e-mail service. Will I play along and add yet another inbox? Unless there is something revolutionary I doubt it. How many inboxes will the average human support? I'm maxed out on e-mail systems and can't see ditching Yahoo and Gmail. Moving is a pain. What's the limit here? Three inboxes? Five? Six? What will get voted off the island?

Does social help or hamper the inbox? Facebook's claim to fame is social networking. Its e-mail system will get you the goods from your most important friends. The rub: A Facebook inbox could be downright scary for an account like mine. My Facebook account is a total mess with work friends, high school and college pals and more than a few I barely remember. In other words, Facebook e-mail isn't going to be that helpful to me.

What are the switching costs? The calculus behind switching e-mail services is an interesting exercise. A newcomer like Facebook could "kill" other services only if it can make migration easy and add new features snazzy enough to break inertia.

Where does collaboration fit? If Facebook does some kind of Office integration---as has been rumored---perhaps the inbox becomes a different kind of collaboration tool. The big question is whether Facebook is the right venue for that type of collaboration.

This list could go on forever. The only near certainty we have is that e-mail isn't dead by any stretch. In fact, an e-mail renaissance may be about to begin. These e-mail happy Web giants can't all be wrong.

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