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Let's rethink email

Evan Schuman | April 7, 2015
I've been using email longer than most people (more than a quarter of a century), so I think I have the credibility to say it's overdue for an overhaul.

I've been using email longer than most people (more than a quarter of a century), so I think I have the credibility to say it's overdue for an overhaul.

Email as we know it has considerable security holes. And of course we're all sick of the straight-from-Satan's-lair spam. But let's not overlook how inherently inefficient it is. Once a boon to businesses, email has developed the annoying habit of burying information. It does this by piling up messages in threads; what you need to find is somewhere among the 30, 40 or 50 threads in a single email file, but who has the time to comb through them all to find that one essential nugget of data? We all know how this happens. Let's say eight people need to agree on a meeting time. The emails come into the thread one after another as the time is negotiated. In the end, perhaps 97% of the messages are irrelevant, but there they all are.

Way, way back (I already said I've been using email for a long time), Lotus Notes avoided this problem to a certain extent. Everyone in an email chain was referred to a linked file, and that one message was constantly updated.

Here's another shortcoming of email as we know it: It's next to impossible to retrieve a message that you wish you hadn't sent. Maybe you got more up-to-date information shortly after you sent the email, maybe you sent it to the wrong person, or maybe you simply said something you shouldn't have. I mean, who hasn't sobered up and realized that offering the CEO a candid assessment of his toupee was just a bad idea? If the recipient is using a POP3 email system, you can pretty much forget it, because everything is downloaded locally and is no longer influenced by changes to the server. But even when that's not the case, you're not likely to have any luck with an email recall attempt. And if you try, the recipient is probably going to know about it, and so your plan will backfire as the recipient will suddenly take an intense interest in what you so very much want to take back. (A very crafty PR person told me once that she would try to retrieve from reporters' inboxes a news release she had sent them, not because she thought she could get it back, but because she figured that would entice them to read it carefully. She understood her prey far too well.)

Now, as it happens, there's a company that is promising to relieve both of these problems. It says its system makes emails easily retrievable, even after the recipient has read it, and even if the recipient is on POP3. Seeing is believing, says I, so the company, called Criptext, sent me an email and I opened it. Five minutes later, I was told to try looking at it again. Wonders of wonders, I couldn't. OK, I thought, these guys may be on to something.

 

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