E-Mail Endures Tough Adolescence

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Adolescence is the phase of development where raging instincts face off against society's need for a more rational sense of social interaction. It is about the development of a functioning identity.

Technologies, like human beings, go through developmental phases. With 150 million U.S. users, e-mail has become the most cost-effective communications medium ever, whether for personal messaging, political campaigning or direct marketing. Yet it is in many ways a very adolescent medium.

Our e-mail infrastructure was not created with the expectation of ubiquitous use. David Crocker, who wrote the RFC for Internet e-mail in 1978, has said the e-mail protocol was not crafted to accommodate the broad array of commercial and non-commercial purposes we now experience.

Low trust. One core challenge is that e-mail can be anonymous and thus intrinsically spoofable, a natural platform for impersonation. There is no built-in authentication, nothing guaranteeing the authenticity of the message or its source, and so we have spam and its evil stepchild, phishing. Phishing has crippled the potential for e-mail-driven commerce. According to Javelin, 55 percent of e-mail users' first instinct upon seeing a message from their own bank is to delete it.

Lessened functionality. Rich graphical e-mail has enabled opportunities for bad actors just as it has for direct marketers. Feature-rich messages are routinely disabled by Internet service providers to protect recipients from the brand-spoofing or virus-spewing risks inherent in the use of images and HTML. The once-foreseen potential of messages with application-like functionality is receding from view. Here again, e-mail's very capabilities are both its strength and the cause of its own limitation.

Reduced deliverability. As Pivotal Veracity reported this year, 20 percent to 25 percent of all permission-based e-mail is not delivered to the inbox. ISPs have responded to the flood of nefarious messages with well-intentioned, if inevitably flawed filtering mechanisms - and for good reason. According to Radicati Group, of the 171 billion messages sent daily in first-quarter 2006, 71 percent were spam.

Legal standing. Regular e-mail has no legal standing due to the unreliability of delivery and the lack of verifiable authentication of the sender and the message. One roadblock to wider use for serious electronic transactions is that defensible notice cannot be given electronically. No readily accessible means exists to create an irrefutable record of e-mails sent or received.

Lack of service-level agreements. No structured relationship exists between the sender and Internet postmasters (the mailbox providers). ISPs deliver e-mail motivated solely by the desire to provide good service to message recipients. That's not a bad thing. But unlike FedEx, they have no responsibility to the sender. Think of Internet e-mail as "possibly, maybe, sometimes."

Language limitations. A sad consequence of spam-seeking content filters is the degree of censorship self-imposed by copywriters. Sephora's Web site describes a new perfume: "Britney Spears personifies daring and piques the curiosity of young women everywhere. Curious by Britney Spears represents the young woman that pushes boundaries and revels in adventure." Next time you want an alternative to hitting your head against the wall, try writing a promotional e-mail for that product. Don't forget to include "buy one, get one free!"

In adolescence, capabilities grow and come into conflict with the environment around them, often resulting in curtailed privileges: The teen is grounded, or parents revoke driving rights in search of more maturity and greater responsibility.

E-mail today is a lot like that adolescent. Its capabilities and openness have produced some rather antisocial behavior, and much of its strength is being withdrawn. Will e-mail grow up or be stunted in its role and purpose? In future columns, we will examine what e-mail might look like once it outgrows its adolescent identity crisis.

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