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What's the future of email?

It's all about GUIs

By Robin Bloor, 21 Sep 2005

Analysis Microsoft's recent acquisition of FrontBridge Technologies, which was finally completed at the end of August 2005, will provide a much needed functionality boost to Microsoft Exchange. A minor surprise in this is that the functionality FrontBridge delivers was already on the Exchange roadmap. Microsoft has decided to buy rather than continue to build, probably for the sake of speed. It makes sense in the circumstances.

Right now email is more of a problem than a solution and most email implementations are woefully short of functionality – including functionality that goes way beyond the security and compliance capabilities that FrontBridge delivers. FrontBridge addresses some of the immediate pains of email management, but it is peripheral to the strategic issues of email that are calling out to be dealt with.

Currently there are two major vendors in the enterprise email market; Microsoft and IBM/Lotus. Only one of the two, IBM/Lotus, has a comprehensive strategic vision. Nevertheless, even IBM/Lotus may not be keeping pace with technology and market development. The whole area of messaging is evolving at its own preferred speed. It isn't waiting for the technology to catch up.

So where is email headed?

Sync and async

First of all, it isn't really about email; it's about messaging in general. Email is only a part of the picture.

There are two kinds of messaging; asynchronous and synchronous. Examples of asynchronous messaging applications (or mediums, if you like) are email, fax, voicemail, SMS messages, and RSS feeds. Messages of this kind are 'notifications'. They may elicit a response, but if so, the response is not immediate. Synchronous messaging applications are different because they involve 'interactions'. Examples include IM (instant messaging), telephony, and web-conferencing.

A common infrastructure and architecture is required for both, for the simple reason that both kinds of messaging need to be subject to a common set of policy rules that govern security, compliance, and company standards. It was never going to be possible to have such a common infrastructure until Voice over IP (VoIP) came into common usage.

A year or two ago, it didn't seem particularly urgent, but suddenly Skype proliferated at a blinding speed. Consequently, it has become feasible to combine the IT infrastructure for data and voice, although it isn't happening yet. We are faced with a situation which mirrors the take-off of IM. With IM, a similarly rapid, anarchic proliferation occurred courtesy of AOL, Yahoo, et al. And integration was poor to non-existent. VoIP will just make matters worse.

Messaging and the GUI

A second development of messaging which is sorely needed and will inevitably happen, in time, is the integration of messaging into the user interface. IBM/Lotus with its WorkPlace product is leading the industry in the right direction, and with any luck the rest of the email vendors will follow suit. WorkPlace integrates messaging with portal capability and with office software.

Both of these ideas are right on the money, but it's just the beginning of what will become a long evolution of messaging integration. The fundamental point here is that email has grown itself a multitude of uses. It isn't just correspondence. There is a whole series of things that people do with email, from file transfer to project management.

When looked at in this way, it quickly becomes clear that email (and IM) is not really an application in its own right, but, on the one hand, a messaging channel for all business applications and, on the other, an integral part of the user interface.

This suggests that the user interface in general needs a thorough overall. And in truth it does. A fully functional GUI can be thought of as having three aspects:

  1. Application usage
  2. Search and navigation
  3. Messaging

All of these are now in a process of evolution which will, given a little bit of luck and some good design, revolutionize the way we use computers.

The omens are not encouraging

In order for this to happen, the GUI needs a complete overhaul. IBM/Lotus has at least made a start on this, but there is a great deal more that needs to be done. It's a sobering thought that the last major change to the conceptual design of the user interface occurred when Apple introduced the Mac in 1984. Details have been added, and changes made, but right now the assumption is that the interface is a wallpapered space with launch capabilities for applications. Messaging is regarded as an application (or set of applications) rather than an integral part of the interface in its own right. Searching and navigating are treated as separate activities (although they are not) and applications are segregated from, rather than integrated with, all messaging and all search and navigation.

The integration of all these activities could and should be the foundation of a productive user interface.

Whether such an evolution of the GUI is possible on the desktop is anyone's guess. The omens are not encouraging, because the GUI can and has been used as a 'lock-in' at the expense of both productivity and 'ease-of-use'. The integration that has been discussed here is more likely to emerge on the PDA than on the PC, where the size of the screen mitigates in favor of usability.

But no matter. It doesn't alter the fact that messaging is a fundamental part of the user interface.

Copyright © 2005,

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