How mailbox ISPs can solve the WhatsApp problem
Rafael Laguna, CEO of Open-Xchange, takes a look at where email is today, arguing that to counter the inexorable rise of real-time messaging, mailbox ISPs should start thinking positively about the complementary qualities that disruptive, real-messaging tools possess.
Email has spent a long time as the world’s preeminent form of online communication. Its resilience in a fast-moving online world is remarkable, and mailbox ISPs have seen off their fair share of challengers since the first email was sent in 1971.
Fast forward to 2018 and, for possibly the first time, we have seen a number of self-styled email killers – messaging tools like Slack and WhatsApp – seeing rapid growth and widespread adoption. But rumours of the death of email are wildly exaggerated. Its dominance, at least in the short to medium term, is the most likely outcome, but it will need to evolve in order to keep pace and to maintain relevance.
We’ve assumed that email is a fully mature product. It is simple, complete and finished. So why are we now using other tools to communicate at work? Modern email platforms lack a lot of features that make real-time messaging great: you don’t receive confirmation that an email has been delivered or read, you can’t react with social means, such as liking an email, and you have no idea if a recipient is online or available.
Mail may have group messages, but they are not real-time and there are no channels on email. Users value these features, which is why these services have become so popular. But are platforms like Slack set to replace email? No, certainly not. Real-time messaging is not an alternative, but rather an additional form of communication that should ultimately inspire mailbox ISPs to modernise their offering.
The problem with users adopting a variety of different proprietary messenger apps is that they are siloed – they don’t talk to each other.
So, when I want to communicate in real-time with somebody new, it has to be whatsapp profile to whatsapp profile, or we both have to be on the same Slack channel. For many users like me, it means that I use a dozen of them, many only available on my phone, some specific to countries, or certain age groups. Email does not have all these disadvantages. One of its greatest features is that you don’t need to know what service, server or client(s) the recipient is using – you just need to know the email address and off you go. All replies land in one bucket. You can keep copies on your own machine(s) and you can search and archive or move them elsewhere any time you like.
Current messengers are a huge 25 year step backwards to the AOL, Compuserve, BTX, Minitel times, when we only had incompatible messaging services, before the Internet became available to everyone and freed us from the siloes by offering open and free protocols that are fully interoperable.
With the growth of platforms like Slack and WhatsApp, we are going back full circle, once again seeing the development of unnecessary walled gardens. At present, these are siloed tools that just aren’t fit for purpose.
But how can we take the best of both email and messenger services? We could take the best of both by merging chat and mail – they’re not so different animals. We could put real-time features into IMAP which will add all those messaging features to mail. Let’s call it Chat Over IMAP (COI) as a qualifier.
Now, if we enhance IMAP with Real-Time and Social features and put it into Dovecot, as many as four million servers, 75% of all IMAP servers in the world, will eventually support this protocol. It will be backwards compatible with pure IMAP, so any old mail client will continue to work, as it is an email thread, and will even be able to participate in a chat conversation.
The user journey
So what would a user journey look like? Say Mary wants to initiate a chat conversation with Peter. She sends an old fashioned email to firstname.lastname@example.org that gets delivered through the normal “store and forward” mechanism. Peter sees this email in his inbox and replies. By replying Peter expresses interest in communicating with Mary, so we have now created a trust connection.
Let’s say both Mary’s and Peter’s mail server support COI. Mary’s email contains her server address and a token for identification. Peter’s server now knows how to find Mary’s and can connect directly, cutting out the whole SMTP / store-and-forward network. Now their conversation lights up with delivery and read notices, presence and social features like react or like. Email clients can switch to a chat mode, where you only see the replies and not the whole mail chain. You can start a chat with many at the same time (“group-chat”) or have public or private chat channels that people can subscribe to.
Even if someone does not have a COI enabled server, they can still participate in (group) chats, they’ll be receiving mails in a mail thread, something that mail clients usually handle well.
This breaks the 1:1:1 connection of chat client, server and service. We enhance email for the first time in decades to offer new features such as ‘liking’ an email, making sure it was delivered, adding channels that we can subscribe to etc. all while retaining the benefits of email’s federated, permissionless architecture.
All you need to know is an email address of the recipient (or the telephone number) – but not what service the recipient is using. All your messaging flows into inboxes that you fully control. You can switch your provider without losing your friend network. You have a backup of all your data if you want to. You can search all mail and real-time messaging in one place.
Through analysis of the real-time, social elements that have driven the growth of tools like Spectrum, or the siloed, proprietary ones like Trello, Slack or WhatsApp, mailbox ISPs can in fact strengthen customer relationships – by implementing some of the features that have made real-time messaging so popular, mailbox ISPs can keep their customers, as much as possible, within their own ecosystem. For corporate clients who would otherwise pay to use Slack, this can also help ISPs maximise their revenue. Likewise, adopting these features will help to with sales efforts. Real-time messaging features have the potential to drive customers to other parts of their business, as these new offerings will help you compete with OTT players such as Facebook and WhatsApp.
By taking the best qualities of email and messaging tools, and combining them with an open system that allows people to email, chat and connect from any device, on any system, we can give the proprietary silos like Google and Facebook a run for their money. Users should have the right and freedom to control how and where they communicate and how much of that information is shared.