Quora Question: Will Anything Replace Email?

Ray Tomlinson is credited with inventing modern email and being the first to use the @ symbol for email addresses. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer from Adam Seabrook, co-founder of betterteam.com:

There is a wasteland full of startups that tried and failed to change user behavior around email. Email, and the way most people use it, is the digital offspring for the way people communicated with written letters for hundreds of years. I expect if I went back 400 years I would find people sending and receiving letters and filing them in piles/drawers/folders in a fashion I could directly replicate with Gmail labels.

Changing user behavior is really really hard. I adhere to inbox zero with no folders. When I see how some people create a folder for everyone that has ever sent them an email, anyone that they have sent an email to, and for every project and idea they have ever had, I turn into a sweaty OCD mess. Trying to change how people communicate and organize these communications is impossibly hard.

For example, barristers in the UK have been tying their legal briefs with different coloured ribbons to show what type of brief it is for over 400 years. This sounds eerily similar to flagging messages with different colors doesn't it?

When we did user research for Betterteam (A recruitment platform for small businesses) we quickly realized that hiring managers want to stay in their email all day and do not want to log into our pretty system to reject or move candidates around. We had to build our service to accommodate this. Our customers are now able to reject a candidate by clicking a button in their email instead of logging into our system.

So what is going to happen to email? There will always be some type of one-to-one and one-to-many style of message exchange that does not require sender and receiver to be online at the same time like instant messages do. I think email will never really be replaced but we will see some huge changes that will massively reduce the amount of email we receive and improve how it works:

1. Bots and AI Assistants: I just eyeballed the last 100 emails I received and around 80 percent of it could be taken care of by a fairly rudimentary bot. Email rules are the caveman version of AI. Expect these to improve to the point where 80 percent of your email is handled silently by your email AI. It should know things like when I last ate and that I like having a coffee with my co-founder around 11 a.m. each day so if I get an email from him at 10:30 a.m. to catch up it locks that in as a coffee meeting.

Simple things like invoices emailed to you being automatically added to your accounting program and scheduled for payment. I already use a feature like this in Xero where my invoices go directly into their Xero account, but this only works if the people I am invoicing already use Xero. In time your email assistant will evolve to understand the intent of messages and be able to answer them for you based on a set of rules it self-learns by analyzing your responses to emails.

2. Self-Service Tools: I recently started using Calendly, which is a service that plugs into my calendar so that people can see my availability and book their own appointment. This is what the user sees when they want to book a time with me:

Behind the scenes I have elaborate rules Calendly allows me to setup that block out 45 minutes after any appointment is booked and only allow a specific number of appointments to be set each day. What used to take me around 8 emails (16 if I was proxying for a recruitment client) now takes me one email. I just send them the Calendly link, they book the time, I get a notification and it is in my diary. It even sends them a reminder email the day before and one hour before.

3. Peer-to-Peer/Decentralized/Serverless Messaging with Authentication & Encryption: If anything is going to replace email this is it but I see it as an improvement, not a replacement. At some point the current method of messages going from your outbox to a server, to another server, to the recipients inbox will need to change. Privacy is an issue people actually care more about now and I expect that to only increase. Spam and phishing is getting more sophisticated. The underlying infrastructure that moves email around will change so that it is encrypted before you send it, signed to verify the authenticity, then delivered directly to the recipients inbox. Something similar to Bitmessage maybe. This way your messages are secure, and you can be 100 percent sure that the person who sent it to you is really the person you think it is.

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