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Think Big. Move Fast.

I used to work with John McKinley at AOL where he was CTO and, later, President of Digital Services. I have enormous respect for him. In a recent blog post, he says that email in its current form is under attack and doesn’t have long to live:

We are in the midst of an important moment of truth – email as we know it is under attack, and the major firms are not moving fast enough to prevent it from becoming more of a niche form of communications in the next 5 years. The email experience of today is being threatened on multiple fronts by a variety of new forms of communication:

  • Twitter/short-form blogging
  • Asynchronous messaging in social networks (e.g., the Facebook Wall)
  • IM experiences now supporting queuing of messages to offline buddies
  • Away message/Status message utilization in instant messaging
  • SMS adoption (late to come to the US, but now pervasive)
  • Wikis and other new collaboration platforms
  • Comments (MySpace comments, Blog comments, et al)
  • Casual communication forms (the nudge, the wink)
  • New sharing experiences (Flickr, et al)
  • Email aggregators (e.g., I use Gmail to aggregate all of my AOL, Yahoo, and POP3 accounts. These other companies still bear all the cost of hosting my email accounts, but now get none of the pageviews.)
  • Email and IM integration into social networks (the new entrant risk).
  • People have more compelling, more contextual, more effective, and more convenient options to share and interact than ever before, and incumbent forms of communications will be the losers here.

    John hits on a very interesting broader point. Every few years a new form of communication arises and for some people this becomes their primary form of communication. Over time, earlier forms of communication lose overall share. This has happened to letter writing, telegraphs, talking on the phone, Usenet newsgroups, chat rooms, and message boards in the past. Email has displaced many of these prior forms of communication over the last 15 years, and is now under threat itself.

    I don’t think all of the communication forms John lists above are equally threatening to email. Some are just features, and others have communication as a secondary aspect to another purpose. But it is clear that SMS, IM and social network messaging have supplanted email use among teens. Kids and teens are also some of the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of casual immersive worlds.

    As John points out:

    The risk is as follows: the major internet incumbents rely tremendously on having a robust base of consumer email account relationships to feed their ad/search businesses. Having that email inbox relationship can yield 2x the monthly page views, when compared with non-email-account consumers.

    The reason is simple – users are more likely to use their primary form of online communication as their homepage. This is why the social networks threaten portals. Being a homepage is an incredibly powerful position because as the first page a user sees, you have an ability to influence what other pages a user sees.

    The portals have long used webmail as the “milk at the back of the store” – a low margin product that keeps users coming back. But to get to the milk you have to walk past the high margin impulse purchase products in a supermarket – the candy and the cookies and the chips. Similarly, to get to your email you have to get past the editorial programming on the portals homepage. A few extra impulse clicks to which shows won at the Emmys or to read about the 700 foreclosure homes being auctioned in one city, and the portal generates some advertising revenue.

    This presents a real opportunity for startups. In the past, innovators that have driven mass adoption of new forms of communication have been bought by big portals well before they needed to show a revenue model, with ICQ and Hotmail being the two best examples. I’d be interested to hear what readers think are today’s most promising candidates for new forms of communication.