Are emails fundamentally outmoded and in need of replacement?
CBR sat down with Henn Ruukel (right), CEO of Fleep and ex-Director of Site Operations at Skype to discuss email and its role in the workplace of the future, as well as potential challengers to its crown.
CBR: Why does email need to be replaced?
HR: We don’t believe in replacing email in all its possible use cases. In the way it is used, it has become a very universal tool. We are using it for having conversations with people or groups of people up to sending a one-way transaction or marketing emails. This might include newsletters, invoices – these types of things. When in Fleep, we think about replacing email, we mainly address the element of people to people (P2P) communications and conversational communications.
Some of the elements of email are quite effective and people will continue to use email for a while. The main examples would be invoicing, newsletters, things like that. That is where email excels to some extent. Where we think email should be replaced is where email is used for conversations between people. Why we think email is broken is that fundamentally it’s never been for conversation, it’s always been for sending and receiving letters.
Every email lives its own life, has its own subject and it’s been optimised for lengthy letters rather than short conversational messages. When email was invented, a lot of work was done in that way – letters going back and forth. Exchanging orders and reports was how work was organised. Most of the modern workforce creates in a collaborative manner where they need to interact quickly with each other, and there should be tools supporting that.
The main weakness of email is the fact that it does not support a conversational approach.
CBR: If you remove the P2P element from email, will that stop people using it so regularly?
HR: It’s an interesting thought: how much activity will be left to email once conversations with actual people are drawn away from email? A parallel is the physical mailbox nowadays, attached to our houses. A while back, when you received a personal correspondence into your physical mailbox as well. Nowdays you mostly receive news and marketing. It becomes very low priority to you to check your physical mailbox, either privately or in your office.
I think something similar will happen with email. You will go and check once a day, once a week. In Estonia (where Fleep is based) we have a lot of invoices from companies being sent over email; it’s a communication that does not have any urgency.
The email becomes low priority, because the priority for us while getting our work done is where we are interacting with other people.
CBR: How has mobile changed enterprise communications?
HR: I think a smartphone combined with mobile internet is now perceived as something that is very cheap or free – we don’t think of it as something expensive any more.
This has made us constantly available, not only through voice calls, which mobile phones did before smartphones. This new era has enabled anyone, through multiple apps running on the phones, to ping us and draw our attention to their messages.
When this was happening only on computers, it was only during the part fo yopur day when you were behind the computer. But now, because the smartphone is always with you, your attention as the receiver becomes a limited natural resource.
I think the original approach that most of the messaging apps have taken has to be changed. When we started building Fleep mobile apps we thought about this from the very beginning: we wanted to empower the receiver, not the sender.
A classic messaging app makes a sound alert for each message that somebody writes to you. They can draw your attention whenever they want. We take a different approach, doing as few alerts as possible.
For example, if you write to me in Fleep, I only receive a push notification with a sound alertfor your first message. But if I choose not to react to it, I am not alerted before I have read the first unread one.
So we are empowering the receiver to decide whether this sender is important and urgent for him right now.
CBR: Why have email providers been slow to react?
HR: The main problem they have with their approach is that they are still relying on the email as a technology. They are still optimising only one user’s view of the conversation.
Imagine a group conversation between me, you and someone called Richard. With Gmail, a one-to-one conversation with Richard about the same topic appears to me in the same flow as the group discussion. For me it’s very hard to follow that some of the messages actually came directly from Richard. This is the shortcoming of trying to accommodate a better user experience where the underlying technology remains the legacy email.
Instead of trying to improve the email experience, we need a new technology that integrates with email but is independent in its abilities and its own message exchange.