Whatever happened to e-mail?

Revolutionary mode of communication going the way of the Dodo

It’s safe to assume that no one alive has ever seen a quagga. The last specimen died in an Amsterdam zoo in 1883. Quaggas, a kind of a half-zebra, half-horse combo, used to roam southern Africa in huge, dense herds but they’re extinct now, just like T. Rex, the Dodo and e-mail.

Beg pardon? E-mail? Extinct?   Well, almost, according to Atos, Europe’s largest IT firm. The company claims that 90 per cent of e-mail messages sent among its employees are a waste of time and money.  Accordingly, Atos employees — all 74,000  — have been ordered to ditch the e-mail and go back to the telephone. E-mail was supposed to boost office productivity; in fact, it’s behaved like cholesterol, clogging the arteries of the business machine. Think of all the crap e-mails you get. Think of the millions of people who, like you, take time out to at least glance at their crap e-mails. Studies show useless e-mails can cost a company of 1,000 employees as much as $10 million a year.

Ah, well. We’re getting used to extinctions these days. Tyrannosaurus Rex terrorized the river valleys of Western Canada for a couple of million years during the Upper Cretaceous period before flaming out, whereas, say, the Polaroid Land Camera barely lasted 60 years (1948 to 2007) before being flung into the Land Fill of History.

And remember the pager? Back in the 1980s it was hard to find a doctor or a salesman who didn’t have one clipped on his or her belt. One or two rappers even went briefly pager-crazy in their performances. Then along came the mobile phone to gobble it up.  R.I.P. noble pager.

And who doesn’t have a Sony Walkman gathering dust at the back of a drawer? When they first appeared in the early 80s Walkmans drove a stake through the heart (or the centre hole) of phonograph LPs. Then, just a few years ago along came a mutation called the iPod and the Sony Walkman went straight to the Museum of Quaint Artifacts.

It had lots of company. The Palm Pilot, born in 1997, was a wonder of its time. Imagine having all your contacts, an accurate calendar and personal notes in one handy gizmo!   With a touch screen and a personal stylus to boot! What could possibly improve on that?

A company named Apple for one.  Hello iPhone; adios Palm Pilot.

Then there’s the Atari 2600. Customers snapped up more than 30 million of those to play video games like Pong, Pitfall and Combat. For all its fame Atari lived for only seven years: 1977 to 1984.

All these techno dinosaurs share two characteristics. Number one:  they were each once on the very knife-edge of surging technology, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Number two: their collapse was utter and lightning-swift in evolutionary terms. Thirty years for the Sony Walkman. A decade for the Palm Pilot. Seven years for Atari.

Now we’re watching the titanic struggles (which look increasingly like death throes) of Canada’s own BlackBerry. Just a couple of years ago it was the world leader in smartphones, commanding over 50 per cent of the American market alone. That share is now down to 10 per cent and circling the drain.

But evolution’s like a baseball game: it’s not over until the last at-bat. Back in the mid-1990s, a company named Apple was on the ropes too.  They appointed a guy named Steve Jobs as CEO.

They did alright.

As for e-mail, the prognosis isn’t bright.

“The younger generation has all but given up on it,” said a feature story in the London Daily Mail — in favour of social networks like Facebook and Twitter.  Why?  Instant-messaging feels more ‘immediate’. Messages don’t languish unread in somebody’s in-box. In fact with Twitter, it can feel almost like you’re having an actual, one-on-one conversation with somebody.

A face-to-face conversation. You can remember what that was like, can’t you?


— Arthur Black lives on Salt Spring Island



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