Why Nobody Can Build an Email Killer

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Photo: Daniel Sambraus / EyeEm

The most compelling tribute to the late Ray Tomlinson might simply be that, by the time he passed away on March 5, it would have been impossible to call for a moment of silence using the medium he pioneered. Tomlinson was best known as the inventor of email, first prototyped in 1971; 45 years later, it’s still the most important instrument shared across industry, our personal lives, government. The contents of certain emails and the precise nature of their exchange may even still have a role in determining who ends up becoming the next president of the United States.

Email is at once both hugely important and intensely personal. Few life changes are as lasting and far-reaching as switching addresses. It’s central in most contemporary stories about identity theft, because a compromised account becomes a way to gather up all sorts of other information, including further authentications — literally, we let email define what it means to be ourselves online. Simultaneously, huge faceless spam industries exist solely to churn enormous amounts of nonsensical messages through the internet in the hopes that someone might see an ad or even get suckered into sending money to an imperiled foreign prince. A second complementary industry then attempts to negate the first and ensure that you never have to see the ad. It’s all so absurd, and so deeply consequential.

Now that our toasters are about to start talking to us, we are clearly well past the point where the original shape of email should be considered sufficient. The messages we send to other people are probably the closest thing to pure thought expressed on the internet with any regularity, but we have yet to design a system detailed enough to capture them. Already, it’s only through proprietary vendors that even relatively basic new features like message-read receipts and threaded discussions have become possible. Just think what could be accomplished with an expansion of the core specifications and technologies behind email: multiple weighted subject lines, hierarchical discussion flows, categories and tags, notifications, multimedia, downstream actions, linked message fragments, engagement modes for users beyond simply “Cc” and “Bcc,” permalinks and annotations.

I could keep rambling on forever with cranky feature suggestions, but none of this will actually happen in the foreseeable future, because nobody is even trying to build a better system. Those supposed email killers you keep hearing about will all fail to actually supplant it, because while they may share the mechanisms of email — or even improve on them — they largely omit its intent. Anybody out to replace the dominant communication method in the developed world can and should be swiftly discounted based on ideology alone, before the tool is even considered.

That is, it will remain impossible to build a better communication system until the primary goal is actually communication itself. But by and large, we don’t invest much in creating new open standards, specifications, and protocols around which entirely new classes of tools can be built — we’re too busy trying to sell apps! And at the end of the day, Slack is just another app.

The funding structure of the technology world is largely set up to fight interoperability. That’s fine to a point, but can you imagine where we’d be if Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Slack started cooperating? We might get something amazing, even an entire new paradigm for organizing ideas, but everybody involved would have to abandon their walled gardens, and with them the untold billions in hypothetical dollars! Maybe this is one of the intangible things we lose as the elders of computing depart us: priorities from an age where computers truly were a new frontier, still too wild to become overly lucrative and awkward. I’ve never done it myself, but I must imagine that the thrill of discovering a new ocean has nothing to do with patenting the nearest boat?

Meanwhile, the rest of us are just trapped in the standoff, babbling endlessly. Without lots of sharing and coordination, there’s a growing possibility that email, or something very close to it, will stick around for a long time, even in the face of other options, as our first truly long-lasting vestigial electronic form. The longer we continue with email as the lingua franca of digital communication, the more entrenched it becomes, and the likelihood of any distinct party or company killing it off becomes increasingly more remote, especially as the incentives of the industry discourage cooperation. You can do almost anything using Slack’s powerful APIs, except host them yourself. Someone important will always consider that their breaking point, and justifiably so.

A coordinated growth effort may seem like a pipe dream, but it was only very recently that Wikipedia managed to reboot our understanding of digital reference materials, despite being propelled by an almost cartoonish idealism. Absent a cataclysmic ground-up reinvention of messaging protocols, the most sensible realistic path forward for new communication tools probably consists at first of minor features built atop regular emails, almost like a sort of intelligent formatting based on new information embedded in hidden file attachments built to a precise and powerful specification. But even that could only ever be a hack for a better individual message, and not really a more powerful aggregate system within which to transmit and then absorb them.

There have been gestures in this direction: The first version of Gchat blended real-time discussion with asynchronous messages, effectively if not seamlessly, before devolving into whatever Google Hangouts is supposed to be. For several years, Facebook quietly assigned an email address to each user, allowing their messages to piggyback on existing contacts outside the network, until that feature was eventually killed because of lack of adoption. So if the big guys can’t pull it off, what hope do the rest of us have?

For one thing, simply being the rest of us in the first place helps, because when compatibility is the most important core feature, strength in numbers is paramount — even Facebook’s tremendous user base is still dwarfed by the number of people who don’t use Facebook. We will create something new eventually, of course, as we always somehow do, and I almost hope we don’t even notice because we’re all too busy talking to each other with it. How much longer we have to wait for that moment just depends on how willing we are to let millionaires keep bickering over who will get to own it. Anyone who even starts to answer that question is already wrong, though, because at this point email simply can’t be killed by a purely partisan effort. There will probably never be a clear winner, aside from either everybody or nobody.