Social email, collaboration bolster inbox importance

Combining collaboration and social features into existing email platforms will encourage adoption, without forcing users to work with standalone tools.

Predictions that email will soon die have been greatly exaggerated. Rather than bury their email platforms, vendors like Google, Microsoft and IBM are melding businesses' number one form of communication with the latest tools in unified communications, enterprise social and collaboration.

"The realization has been that for all the attempts to kill email, it's still as strong as ever," Nemertes Research Group analyst Irwin Lazar said. "Vendors are now saying, let's stop trying to figure out how we can replace it, and instead, morph these tools into the familiar email interface."

Bellevue College in suburban Seattle exemplifies the trend. The school is looking forward to future versions of Microsoft Outlook, which are expected to include social media software components from Yammer.

Acquired by Microsoft in 2012, Yammer is used today by faculty, students and administrators. However, it is expected to become even more popular in the future among younger generations that have grown up with Facebook and Twitter, said Russ Beard, Bellevue's vice president of information resources.

"Faculty and staff definitely live inside of Outlook, students, not so much," Beard said.

Today, Outlook is used for email and Microsoft Lync for instant messaging, content sharing and phone calls, Beard said. Lync is good for immediate online collaboration while Outlook is better for sending longer messages that do not need a quick response.

"I don't believe we will see email disappear soon," Beard said. "Most [employees still] use email all day." Building collaboration and social features into the tried-and-true email platform will help build familiarity, and increase adoption, he said.

The up-and-coming social email market

Like Microsoft, Google is also combining social networking features with email. The mixture will be in Inbox, an email platform for business that is currently available in beta to a select group of companies. Once formally released, Inbox will run on Android and iOS mobile devices and on the PC through the Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari browsers.

Inbox differs from Google's current email client, Gmail, by treating messages like tasks and extracting important data like phone numbers and package tracking numbers. Key information taken from emails is displayed on the home screen of devices, so users don't have to open the entire message.

"Inbox is an attempt to reinvent how users interact with email, with added social capabilities," Lazar said.

IBM's answer to social email is Verse, a cloud-based, self-organizing platform with built-in analytics.

For years, IBM tried to shoehorn the Lotus email platform and SameTime UC into the Connections social platform. The company has recently reversed the roadmap for its three products, building SameTime and Connections into Lotus.

"They found that they went about it the wrong way, and that's where they are heading now with [Verse]," Lazar said. IBM will reportedly introduce a freemium version of Verse during the first quarter of 2015.

Some pundits believe focusing on any single platform, whether email, UC or collaboration, is the wrong approach and is not in the best interest of business.

Constellation Research analyst Alan Lepofsky advocates building a "messaging hub" that gathers all communications in a single client.

Users would be free to choose their preferred method to send and receive communications, whether email, social media or SMS text messages, without having to consciously work within one platform, he said.  

"Ideally, I wouldn't know if I'm sending you an email, an SMS, or a Twitter direct message," Lepofsky said. "I just want to make contact and have the service relay the message to [the other user's] messaging hub in the way they would like to receive their messages. This is not available today."

As long as vendors are reaping profit from email platforms, it's unlikely they will abandon them anytime soon. So industry oracles that see email's demise should be reminded of the misquotation attributed to the American writer and humorist Mark Twain. "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, senior news writer and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter. 

Next Steps

Social networking tools are the new email

The future of email: Experts on social media tools

Enterprise social tools edging out internal email

Dig Deeper on Social Networking for Business