in Observations

the future is email

In a recent podcast Jeff Attwood and Joel Spolsky were discussing the virtues of email. As a somewhat brief summary of the discussion I think it’s fair to summarise that Jeff hates email. As it happens I’m inclined to go along with him on this one, but possibly for different reasons.

From what I can gather, the problem Jeff and Joel were describing with email is that we end up with an inbox full of emails that never get read or processed, and to allocate the time to process these mails and respond would be a job onto itself. To be honest, I don’t suffer this problem quite as bad, mainly due to the fact that I do not receive in any shape or form the level of email that both of these guys do. As a result, it’s hard for me to appreciate the hate of email for the same reasons. However, I feel there is a far more toxic fallout to the email culture than that which is described.

It has come to my attention recently that many (large) organisations still use email as a way of providing an API to their service. What do I mean by this? Well, in this digital age it is often the case that a web application uses the API provided by another web service to interact with it. For example, if I want to receive a list of the tweets that I’ve made, the twitter API allows me to do this by accessing a given URL, and returns the data in the format of my choosing. Similarly, I can also publish a tweet by posting data to a given URL. This is all rather nice – everything is communicated over good old HTTP allowing easy integration with other services.

However, many firms that are not technologically aware are using email as a mechanism for inter app communication. I don’t want to bash individual companies here but the ones I have personally dealt with are multi-national companies with profits in the billions. Yet despite such profits margins their software systems look like something seen in War Games. To perform any communication with these systems you send an email, and responses are returned to you via the magic of an automated email. Thus, you have to parse the email body and/or parse an email attachment to get the response data. It’s as if Web 2.0 passed like an amoeba in the night without these companies so much as blinking.

You may say that it must work for these companies to be making the profit margin they do. However, as customers, we are paying thousands on development costs to integrate with these systems – in many cases we have no choose in the matter. At the end of the day these companies are slowly falling behind and if they are choosing not to innovate at this level, I personally don’t hold out too much hope for innovation on a wider scale. This kind of strategy no longer works, Google and other such companies have long since blown this way of doing business out the water. No-ones’s saying the death of the non-innovators is going to be quick!

So what is the message I’m trying to get across? Well first, email for this style of inter app communication isn’t really helping anyone. If you are thinking about doing something like this, please think again. Also, on a more general note, can companies that fail to innovate survive in this technology driven society? It’s obviously hard to answer this question with definite authority, but going by gut feeling and history, it doesn’t look good.

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  1. Just wasted half an hour looking at the difference between content-transfer-encoding techniques because somebody thought it a good idea to provide an interface to business-critical data using email.