Nathaniel Borenstein on why email isn't dead

Almost 20 years ago Nathaniel Borenstein, then working for Bellcore, proposed to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) the notion that a new protocol be used to swap multimedia data, rather than just ASCII text, over email. Today, that protocol, MIME, is a bog-standard aspect of the way we communicate and is used across email messages, web pages and operating systems. Now chief scientist at (appropriately enough) cloud-based email management and security firm Mimecast, Borenstein explains why rumours of the death of email are exagerrated.

Q. What do you think of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's famous suggestion that email is going to go away because young people are rejecting it?

A.The trivial response is 'remind me what users do if they forget their Facebook passwords?' They mail it to them. Facebook, like other social networks, is a closed environment where users can only send messages to people on the network. Teenagers travel in packs and you tend to have social groups following each other. When those people go into the workplace and tell all their business contacts they have to be on Facebook, they'll lose all those contacts.

Q. But you see a lot of people turning to things like instant messaging as an alternative...

A.It depends on what you're trying to use it for but if I were Facebook I would an add email capability. Before joining Mimecast I worked at IBM for seven years and IM was used as heavily as anywhere but it's for very different purposes. If someone is not online it's useful; if not its useless. There are times you don't want [a rapid exchange of messages]. It's like when you call someone just to get their voicemail.

Q. So do you see a future for email that outlives us both?

A. Yes. With each of these messaging media it builds on the previous generation. Email didn't replace the telephone. Email is for 'store and forward' delivery to any format. It's more capable [than alternatives].

Q. But 20 years ago fax was dominant in electronic business written communications...

A.The fax example is a very rare one and sometimes there are things that are just plain better.

Q. With the rise of unified communications do you see the various types of messaging being masked by the front-end so users don't know or care which medium they're using - they're just sending messages as dictated by recipient's profile, location etc?

A. I do expect that merging to happen but I suspect email will still be called email [and remain distinct].

Q. Do you think there's some generational bifurcation between younger people who prefer the instantaneous nature of IM versus older users who require email?

A.I think there's some bifurcation or trifurcation but that might be a stage in life.

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