With over 3.9 billion email users and around 6 billion email accounts in operation, email is the most important and widely used communications medium on the internet.  It is estimated that a staggering 2.93 billion emails are sent around the world EVERYDAY – that is 3.2 million “send” per second! These numbers are just mind numbing and represent a revolution in communication. 

Yes, emails revolutionised the way we connected with others back in the nineties.  It was an order of magnitude faster / reliable than post and cheaper than a phone call.  Emails not only drove productivity within businesses but also helped connect families and friends. 

In the corporate world, emails became the de-facto means of communication.  Over time, Governments around the world started recognising emails as a binding means of providing information in writing.  Written memos within and outside the organisation now started moving on to the Email systems.  Emails became official!

A Brief History

It all began on 29 October 1969 when the first message was sent from one computer to another on the US Department of Defence network, ARPANET.  However, it wasn’t until 1971 that Ray Tomlinson developed emails as we know it today.  It was Ray, who came up with the use of “@” in emails to resolve which “person@computer” received the message. 

Initially, emails were used to communicate within the network.  However, the concept of communicating via email from organisation to organisation was the impetus for the advent of the internet itself, which was invented in 1989.  It was only after web clients were developed in the early nineties that emails became mainstream.  As the internet usage exploded, growing from 55 million users worldwide in 1997 to 400 million by 1999, for many new internet users, email was the first practical application of this exciting new medium.

The Rise of Emails

Each day, the average office worker receives 121 emails.  Over 85% of the users check their emails on a smartphone and a survey by Adobe revealed between 45% – 50% of the participants check their business and personal emails every few hours.

How did we end up so reliant on emails?

Over time, emails came to serve two purposes.  The first purpose, quite obviously, was to help communicate efficiently.  The second purpose was to serve as a form of identity.  Individuals started identifying themselves through their business and/or personal email addresses.  As the Internet boomed, emails were used to sign up onto other platforms strengthening the sense of identity.  Here are five reasons why I believe emails grew so rapidly:

1. Faster, better, cheaper – Emails did not solve a “problem” per se but provided a far more efficient way to communicate than the incumbent solutions

2. Free – Thanks to service providers such as AOL, Hotmail, Yahoo and then Google, everyone had the ability to set up their own identity

3. Ecosystem – Since emails provided a degree of identity, it became the general means of authenticating a user in the online world.

4. Asynchronous communication – This was and remains an important benefit offered by emails for cross-company and cross-border communication

5. Ease of use – Email clients have become easier to use over time making it one of the simplest technology products to be used.

The Fall of Emails

Truth be told, emails are not really going to die anytime soon.  However, the dominance of the mighty email is diminishing. 

The first turf that emails have surrendered is personal communication.  I do not know of many individuals who still communicate with their friends or family via emails.  Messaging services such as WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, etc., have captured this market.  In a way, these systems beat email at its own game – they became faster and more reliable than emails.  I do not foresee people on messaging apps to EVER return to emails.

The second issue with emails is unfettered access to the individual.  Anyone who knows my address can actually get a foot inside the door…. We would not appreciate this in the real world and are now absolutely hating SPAM / “marketing” emails clogging our inbox.  Apparently, 67% of all emails sent are SPAM.  This translates to roughly 161 billion spam emails being sent out every day.  As a result, most personal inboxes are graveyards for promotional material. 

MailChimp, a company that sends billions of emails a month for millions of clients, sets the average of unopened emails at 80%. That’s over 60 trillion unopened emails, lying around in inbox cemeteries across the world. Given that the average click rate of emails (how many successfully delivered emails get at least 1 click) is 2.43%, 97.57% of marketing emails sent never see any engagement.

Thirdly, emails are also losing their currency as a source of authentic identity.  The advent of mobile phones has made phone numbers a more readily usable and trusted source of identity.  This coupled with the fact that most people have multiple email id’s (that are filled with spam) has made it more attractive for phone numbers to become the primary identity for accessing systems.

While one might argue emails are more efficient and suited for business conversations, that is far from the truth as well.  In fact, emails are the single biggest source of confusion and productivity loss within most organisations.  I will cover this in my next article.

Where to from here for emails?

Emails have a definite role to play and that is for impersonal communication between entities (B2B or B2C).  I do not envisage receiving my child’s school newsletter, my airline’s frequent flyer program details or my insurer’s reminder to pay my premium in any other way (for now).  I do have a need to communicate with these firms and I prefer collecting them in emails so that I do not clog up my other channels that are now compartmentalised for other functions.

As such, emails will unlikely die over the next few decades but it’s relevance to our everyday life will diminish drastically. To see why emails no longer need to be how you communicate for business conversations, try Bondle.app.


Sources and References:

1. https://phrasee.co/a-brief-history-of-email/

2. https://blog.cloudflare.com/the-history-of-email/

3. https://99firms.com/blog/how-many-email-users-are-there/#gref

4. https://blog.verloop.io/is-email-dead-an-in-depth-analysis-to-the-rise-and-fall-of-electronic-mail/