1971: Disney World opened in Florida, the microprocessor was invented, Led Zeppelin IV came out, and the first ever email was sent and received.
By the time I was old enough to know anything at all, Disney World, microchips, and “Stairway to Heaven” might as well have been around forever. But not email.
I have vivid memories of my dad coming home with our first family computer. And I remember sometime later we got a dial-up modem. We all learned about email together as a family. For something invented some 25 years prior, email sure felt new.
Fast forward 25 years and we’re all still hooked on email, but it doesn’t feel like it did. Maybe email’s starting to look its age, which is why so many companies are trying to reinvent or replace it.
Can email last another 50 years?
I couldn’t think of anyone with a stronger perspective on the future of email as both a technology and a cultural institution than Laurent Perrin, our Chief Technical Officer and Co-Founder at Front. He’s been thinking about the future of email for more than 7 years now, and has as much insight into its trajectory as anyone.
I sat down with Laurent over Zoom to get his perspective on what to expect from email both in the immediate and distant future. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.
2021 is going to be the 50th anniversary of the invention of email and since then we’ve seen a lot of attempts over the years to reinvent or replace it. But email is still a daily part of most people’s lives. Why do you think email has been so resilient over 50 years?
I think it’s so pervasive because it’s a generic protocol. Anyone can have an email address and you’re not in anyone’s backyard. And it’s one of the only truly open protocols. And it’s also that the weaknesses of email are also its strength. It’s so flexible, it’s something that everyone understands, which means that it’s so easy to include someone in an email.
But at the same time, it’s chaotic.
When you look ahead to the next 50 years — that’s a long time to like look ahead, I know — but how do you think email will change and develop both over the short term, the next five years and then also over the long term, the next 50?
People have long realized that the way that we want to use email today is completely different from the expectations. Like when people invented email, they were just duplicating the process they had with physical mail. That’s why you have things like BCC, which reflects what existed before then.
And so clearly it doesn’t really work.
However, one aspect that is certainly going to endure is the fact that email is asynchronous and in fact, in the olden days of Front, I really saw Front as being an asynchronous client way more than an email client. Like, we could easily replace email with something else.
But this asynchronous nature is really at the heart of Front. It is the best way to collaborate, because you have time to do things on your own time. And then you have this other time when you go to the campfire and you see what everyone else has been working on.
That’s so interesting to me because I’ve heard the inspiration behind Front, Mathilde’s story about working happier. But for you from a technical perspective, was that the spark or was there a spark that made you think on a technical level, "Okay, this mission of working happier is possible."
When we started Front, you had people who were saying, "Oh, this thing is no longer working and we need to start from a clean slate, a completely new product that doesn’t work the same way. You have to start from an empty inbox again." And on the other hand, you had new email apps, but they didn’t really question how the protocol was working.
So it was still the same thing where it was really hard to collaborate.
And in the end, the great thing about email is that basically all of our valuable data exists somewhere in an email. But the problem is that it’s unstructured, it’s siloed, and the signal-to-noise ratio is really weak. And so what we thought was possible was to change the data structure a little bit to reduce all of the redundancy.
So, for example, you have an email and I have an email it’s actually two copies of the same email that lives in two different inboxes. In Front, we know that actually this is only one piece of data and we try to reduce those redundancies and to turn your email into more of a database. And once you do that, then it becomes possible to build a collaboration layer on top of it because we’re collaborating on the same object.
And that’s why I think the thing that was truly unique about Front in the beginning was the belief that even though it was a technology that was already decades old, you could find a seamless migration path to something that’s a lot more modern and that works.
People were saying you have to start from something new and there’s going to be a very painful transition. And we said, "Not necessarily." You can still reach the same goal, but without going through a painful migration path.
And so when you look at these new companies or even more established businesses that are are starting to dip their toes into email, do you think that they’ll find their way to the same thought process that you did early on?
Yeah, because the problem that you necessarily have to solve, in my opinion, is that the reason why email is so valuable is that it’s asynchronous. Even though people love to complain about email that still how they want to interact with people, at least outside their company, so that they have control and they can do things on their own time rather than have their schedule be controlled by someone else.
But the moment you start interacting with that, then a lot of the problems that we’ve been solving over the years have to be solved. It all comes in the same package in a way. You have a group of people who collectively own a piece of data, and so you have to know who is responsible for what.
And the way we started Front is that we first worked on the collaborative aspect. So we try to build a product that was for teams first. And then we worked back to include your individual email because we realized that a lot of the messages you collaborate on originate from your private inbox.
And some of what we’re seeing is that people are attempting sometimes to do the opposite. So they start from an individual product and then they expand to a team product. And maybe it’s possible, but it sounds a lot harder, because you cannot build the collaboration layer as an afterthought.
When you think about the world of messaging in general, obviously there are thousands of different ways and platforms to send a digital message, whether it’s Twitter, SMS, Facebook. Is there a future for all of these or do you think we’ll see them collapse back on themselves because so many of them are just ecosystem-based? Or do you think that there’s a future for all of these different mediums and platforms?
I think that’s an interesting question. What’s certain is that at some point, new channels gain traction because they were noisier and because they would constantly be able to grab your attention. And I think there’s definitely fatigue going on where the novelty is going off and people are not going to be as interested.
At the same time it’s difficult, because you’d rather use something that’s not tied to a specific company, and not tied to a specific platform, but they can be super powerful because it means that the channel can evolve really quickly.
And it’s also the reason why email hasn’t changed in decades now. It’s because no one is really owning it and no one is able to decide for email, "Okay, we’re going to have a reliable anti-spam system that everyone will agree on." That would never happen, whereas it’s something that Facebook or Twitter could implement if they wanted to.
So do you think that email will be around in another 50 years? Do you think it’ll make it to age 100?
Yeah, I think so.
There is a bias because we’ve seen the beginning of many technologies. And we expect that because things were changing a lot at the time, they would keep changing. There’s a forefront of technology, but once it moves on, there’s not that much interest to revisit things.
So I don’t know what will happen in 50 years, but if I had to take a bet, I would assume that the things that have been here for a long time are likely to endure. If you look at the car, there are pieces of technology that have changed, but they are also fundamental technologies that haven’t changed in 50 years. And it doesn’t mean that they won’t change at some point. But just because they changed a lot in the beginning, it’s not really a good indication of what will happen in the future.
That makes a lot of sense, and you’re right about the car. I mean, cars have changed a lot over the years, but car infrastructure is just so entrenched that even though they might be electric or they might be self-driving, they’re still cars essentially, right?
Yeah, but with email it really depends on what you consider email to be. If you think about the specific protocol then maybe that will change over time. But you know, the ’save’ icon still displays as a floppy disk. So it means that the familiarity that people have with things I think is likely to endure, because it’s a common ground that everyone understands.
Written by Matthew Klassen
Originally Published: 19 January 2021