The Future of the Future of Spam (& Email)

I am fascinated all over again with email. Except that it’s the longer the thrill I got more than a decade ago from sending messages to people hither and yon, but it’s recognizing that email is going through a very public car-crash — a combination of spam, email overload, and using a tool for tasks for which it was not designed. The result, however, will be next-generation email tools that are much, much better.

All of this is by way of prelude for including my National Post column from last Saturday:

What if the Next Big Thing is the Previous Big Thing? The most successful software application in history is email, and it is almost certainly set for a second round of success.

You wouldn’t know that, of course, from all the current hand-wringing over spam. Yes, unsolicited bulk email is a scourge, but it is much closer to being manageable than to being a continuing business opportunity — for spammers or for anti-spam sorts.

A combination of innovative filters and rules, plus emerging industry standards (like Yahoo’s DomainKeys and Microsoft’s Sender ID) are going to cut the number of bulk email in half – at least — over the next twenty-four months.

But once the tide of spam recedes we will see what all that watery communication was hiding: a lot of rocks in our email.

Go look in your email inbox and check how many read and unread messages there are. My own count varies, depending on how diligent I am being, but there are rarely less than 100 messages in my inbox. Granted, some of those emails are months old, but they are piled up nevertheless.

Why do I keep so many inbox messages? Partly because I use emails to remind me of tasks I have to do, partly because I’m still mulling how and whether to respond to some of these people, and partly because I can’t always be bothered filing emails as they come in. The result: an inbox in extremis.

And I am not alone. One 1996 study by the Association of Computing Machinery found that subjects had, on average, 2,482 messages in their inbox; they had only an average of 858 items filed in folders. In other words, for every message that they had gotten around to filing they had roughly three messages strewn about in their email inbox.

I know people like that. One colleague has a few thousand emails in his inbox, most of which are months (and even years) old. He almost certainly can’t find anything in that mail morass, so I’m guessing he keeps it there largely for a feeling of security. Deleting things feels rash, so you might as well keep it – just in case.

Why have we reached this email impasse? Largely because email was intended to be the electronic equivalent of a brief hallway conversation. Instead it has become something else altogether, a Swiss army knife of the Internet, with responsibilities ranging from communications, to personal archives, to task management.

But email does most of those things poorly. Filing is too hard, tasks scroll off the screen in an ever-filling inbox, and personal archives in email are almost entirely unsearchable.

Increasingly, this has consequences. Companies lose sales because leads get lost or accidentally deleted; lawyers lose correspondence in important cases; software vendors worry about vexing emails hiding in dark corners; and technical support people lose track of ongoing discussions with frustrated clients.

It will only get worse. People are increasingly reliant on email, and they will be more so once the spam problem is reduced — and once Sarbanes-Oxley’s email-retention implications are better understood.

Everyone complains about email, but does no-one do anything about it? Well, trouble means a business opportunity, so various companies are are promising to make email manageable.

Stata Laboratories has a product called “Bloomba” that it is billing as the Google of email. It is, in effect, an email client built around a speedy search tool. Another California company,, has also received favorable press for its high-speed email (and everything) search product.

A Canadian company is in the mix too. Nelson, British Columbia-based Caelo has a nifty product it bills as an email organizer. While it offers a nice search feature, perhaps Caelo’s most compelling attribute is that it auto-files much of your email into intuitively-derived folders for you.

Even Microsoft’s Outlook 2003, which bestrides corporate email like a colossus, has added some useful new organizing features in its latest version. That said, its search remains abysmal and filing in Outlook is only one step above throwing things into random piles on the floor.

We are over-focused on one shrinking email problem – spam – only to be confronted with a growing one that never went away – email overload. Fixing that one will turn out to be much more interesting and important.


  1. The Future of Email

    Paul Kedrosky writes about the future of email: Infectious Greed: The Future of the Future of Spam (& Email): You wouldn’t know that, of course, from all the current hand-wringing over spam… but it is much closer to being manageable than to…