How cloud storage and collaboration are changing email communications

Email communications aren't dead, but social networking, cloud storage and collaboration tools have made it easier for employees to work together.

Email communications are not going away anytime soon, but they may not remain the medium of choice as more capable technologies emerge.

Core email technology hasn't changed much since the moniker for exchanging digital messages was coined in the early 1990s. Many technologies followed to extend and enhance email, such as mail encryption, full-featured email clients, and even more recent extensions that link email attachments to cloud storage and collaboration services, such as Dropbox and Google Drive.

At its most basic, however, emailing is still the act of composing a message and hitting "Send." Such utter simplicity has kept email relevant for decades, but it is time to reexamine the use cases.

The overwhelming trend is toward more immediate and concise communications. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others have seen a rapid rise in usage in recent years, and many people use them as their primary means of digital communication. Text and picture messaging between phones, via SMS, Multimedia Messaging Service and proprietary services such as Apple iMessage and BlackBerry Messenger, are also ubiquitous. Corporate users are simply not going to read a 1,000-word email with any kind of justice when they receive an average of 105 email communications per day.

Changes in email consumption are also important to consider. Employees often read their email on mobile devices with smaller displays, which means messages are even less likely to be read effectively. A 140-character tweet, for comparison's sake, is small enough to be quickly scanned for relevance.

Social networks also trump email in that they allow for more passive communication. You can put out an idea to your peers without the mandated response that email requires. Email is constantly piling up in users' inboxes, which puts employees on a never-ending treadmill of reading and answering email communications. A 2012 University of California, Irvine study (PDF) found that workers who didn't check email on a regular basis were less stressed and more productive than workers who did.

In addition, email lacks the "presence" features that make users aware of the status of the person they want to communicate with. When users know what the person they're trying to reach is doing -- they may be in a meeting, on the phone or on vacation -- it leads to more efficient conversation.

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Email can still be useful as a method of sharing files with others, but it is now in direct competition with cloud storage and collaboration service offerings. For example, Google Drive and Evernote allow their users to share documents and files without directly attaching those files to an email. A simple URL link is all that is needed for a group to easily initiate collaboration on the same document. In theory, email is more private because it's not broadcasting the data for all to see, the way social networks do, but social networks are aware of users' transient need for privacy. Facebook Messenger and Twitter offer direct messaging, and many other social networking services provide private messaging options that are a hybrid of emails and instant messages.

As evidence of the direction email is taking, Microsoft's Skype and Yammer acquisitions are a possible prelude to where the company expects email communications to move. Skype has absorbed the popular MSN Messenger instant messaging service. Lync and Lync Online users are now able to share presence, IM and voice communications with Skype users. Yammer, the enterprise-tuned-social-networking service, now integrates with Microsoft's Dynamics customer relationship management tool and Salesforce.com. Yammer will soon see tighter integration with Office 365 and SharePoint. Outlook 2013 can link to social media accounts, and Exchange has had Unified Messaging features since Exchange 2007. The notion of presence is integrated into Office products, so anytime users see a contact, they can quickly see that person's availability.

Google is also building inroads to its Google+ social offering by fostering integration between Google Drive, Gmail's chat feature, Google Voice and Google+ Hangouts, which allow defined or ad hoc meet ups with video, IM and photo sharing.

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