Can email finally be killed off?
On my daily hour-long commute into work on the train, I always fantasize about how I will productively spend that time; that today, I will make headway with my book, or get ahead with my writing for the day, but the truth is I rarely do.
Instead, I spend most of it reading and responding to email.
Around me, commuters are all doing the same – either via dongle-connected laptops or just on their phones, they ceaselessly scroll to the top of their inbox to refresh, respond, repeat.
According to a survey of 1000 workers by mobile software company Good Technologies, almost 70pc of people check their work emails before 8 am and about half of all people check email while still in bed.
Business email will account for over 132 billion emails sent and received per day by the end of 2017, says technology market research firm Radicati Group.
Despite the ubiquity of email, and its indisputable crown as king of primary communication in the workplace, tools and products are cropping up to combat the uncontrollable surge of email traffic that is heading our way.
The big problem with email in a working environment is its opacity – email is a walled garden whose contents only those copied in know about, and when employees move on, their email inboxes die quietly.
The tool that has taken offices by storm in recent years is Slack, a California-based office messaging app that works across your phone, computer, or tablet and creates a searchable archive of all messages exchanged.
This has turned Slack into one of the fastest growing enterprise startups in history. It currently has 1.7m daily active users, growing at the rate of 40,000 people a week. It grew its user base by 10 times in 12 months.
On average, its users spend 10 hours connected to the service and about 2.5 hours of those actively engaging with Slack – posting messages, clicking links, uploading files and so on.
As of today, the 20-month-old company has annual revenue of $45m, and is valued by its investors at $2.8 billion. Its last reported revenue on July 14 was $30m.
Investors’ trust seems to have rubbed off on customers too. Slack counts companies like Samsung, Dow Jones, KPMG, Deloitte, Nasa, and Ogilvy among its customers. In the UK, companies like Ocado, Lush, the Times of London and Ticketmaster use Slack.
Ocado’s technology department started using Slack for individual teams, but has now been rolled out across the entire department. Lush has said that since they began using Slack, email has reduced by 75 pc.
If you fire up Slack, it has an almost-instant setup which makes it easy to adopt and try out. Within it, you can create “channels” for your team for different discussions and projects, and it integrates with 90 different services including Google Docs, Dropbox and Skype.
For example, if I sent my team a Google Docs link, Slack pulls out some content from the document to create a headline and a small preview, so my team knows what it is about.
Slack also allows you to create chat “bots” within each chat, whom you can send messages to just like you would a teammate. The bots tend to be administrative helpers – such as a scheduling bot that can tell you when a group of people are free to have a meeting, or an expenses bot that can file away your receipts to an expenses database.
The CTO of Dow Jones reportedly told Slack his teams use a custom bot that listen out for mentions of any companies within Slack chats, and interrupts the conversation with related, breaking news it thinks may be relevant.
The business model is simple: Slack offers a freemium service with unlimited archiving and the ability to customise for your organisation; at the top-end, it charges businesses $150 per person per year. For large organisations, this tends to scale up quickly. The startup currently has 480,000 paying customers.
I recently met the startup’s chief executive, Stewart Butterfield. The 42-year-old former co-founder of Flickr, who sold that company to Yahoo for a reported $25m, is remarkably relaxed about the app’s rapid growth.
He told me it was a by-product of another company he was running called Glitch which was an online game. Glitch closed down in December 2012, but Slack emerged as a tool the founders had accidentally created to communicate more easily between New York, Canada and California.
Butterfield claims he doesn’t see Slack as an email-killer, because email is the “lowest common denominator and crosses organisational boundaries.” Yet, the numbers showing a huge reduction in email use among Slack customers are at his fingertips .
On average, customers report a 50pc reduction of email use within their organisations when they use Slack. Lush reported 75pc reduction.
Within Slack itself, email use is almost negligible according to its chief executive. Butterfield said he recently looked at how many emails had gone out through the company-wide email address and he found it was one email a month.
Slack isn’t the only one trying to reinvent office communications. Microsoft recently announced a self-described “Slack killer” but that only works within Office 365. Companies like Google, Amazon and Dropbox are all planning email alternatives, and everyone from Facebook to Baidu is working on an artificially intelligent assistant that you can help you complete admin tasks via message conversations.
Another startup which can be viewed as a rival to Slack is Goldman Sachs-backed messaging network Symphony.
Although branded a Bloomberg-killer, with Symphony giving users access to breaking news from the Wall Street Journal and financial information from S&P Capital and Selerity, its chief executive has said it is not just targeting the world of finance. It wants to kill email.
Symphony’s unique selling point is security: all chats are encrypted, so it could be an attractive alternative for businesses like investment banks, law firms and healthcare where privacy is profoundly important.
Slack meanwhile has made inroads into everything from media, to space research and financial consulting.
The complete demise of email in the short term is an unrealistic prediction – it will remain the way most people communicate in your personal lives and archive links, documents and message exchanges for the long-term.
But companies like Slack and Symphony are helping organisations become more agile, collaborative, and ultimately more productive.
I don’t mind still having to audit my inbox every day on the train, if it also means that I could finally finish reading my book.