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Why Google wants to replace Gmail

Mike Elgan | Oct. 27, 2014
Gmail represents a dying class of products that, like Google Reader, puts control in the hands of users, not signal-harvesting algorithms.

I'm predicting that Google will end Gmail within the next five years. The company hasn't announced such a move -- nor would it.

But whether we like it or not, and whether even Google knows it or not, Gmail is doomed.

What is email, actually?
Email was created to serve as a "dumb pipe." In mobile network parlance, a "dumb pipe" is when a carrier exists to simply transfer bits to and from the user, without the ability to add services and applications or serve as a "smart" gatekeeper between what the user sees and doesn't see.

Carriers resist becoming "dumb pipes" because there's no money in it. A pipe is a faceless commodity, valued only by reliability and speed. In such a market, margins sink to zero or below zero, and it becomes a horrible business to be in.

"Dumb pipes" are exactly what users want. They want the carriers to provide fast, reliable, cheap mobile data connectivity. Then, they want to get their apps, services and social products from, you know, the Internet.

Email is the "dumb pipe" version of communication technology, which is why it remains popular. The idea behind email is that it's an unmediated communications medium. You send a message to someone. They get the message.

When people send you messages, they stack up in your in-box in reverse-chronological order, with the most recent ones on top.

Compare this with, say, Facebook, where you post a status update to your friends, and some tiny minority of them get it. Or, you send a message to someone on Facebook and the social network drops it into their "Other" folder, which hardly anyone ever checks.

Of course, email isn't entirely unmediated. Spammers ruined that. We rely on Google's "mediation" in determining what's spam and what isn't.

But still, at its core, email is by its very nature an unmediated communications medium, a "dumb pipe." And that's why people like email.

Why email is a problem for Google
You'll notice that Google has made repeated attempts to replace "dumb pipe" Gmail with something smarter. They tried Google Wave. That didn't work out.

They hoped people would use Google+ as a replacement for email. That didn't work, either.

They added prioritization. Then they added tabs, separating important messages from less important ones via separate containers labeled by default "Primary," "Promotions," "Social Messages," "Updates" and "Forums." That was vaguely popular with some users and ignored by others. Plus, it was a weak form of mediation -- merely reshuffling what's already there, but not inviting a fundamentally different way to use email.

This week, Google introduced an invitation-only service called Inbox. Another attempt by the company to mediate your dumb email pipe, Inbox is an alternative interface to your Gmail account, rather than something that requires starting over with a new account.

 

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