Guest Post: Who Wins the Email vs. Facebook Wrestling Match?

by Ostatic Staff - Feb. 03, 2011

Millions of people worldwide rely on email every day so sounding the alarm on its eventual demise is sure to garner some attention. Rafael Laguna, CEO of open source groupware Open-Xchange offers his take on why recent reports that social media platforms like Facebook are poised to plunge a knife into the heart of today's email messaging systems are much ado about nothing.

Who Wins the Email vs. Facebook Wrestling Match?

By Rafael Laguna, CEO, Open-Xchange

I read Ed Moltzen's article "R.I.P. E-mail, 1961-2010" with interest because its premise is that e-mail is fraught with security problems and is no longer the "killer app," -- thus its end has come. I keep seeing evidence, thought, that not only is e-mail alive and well, it's thriving.

Moltzen's ideas aren't unusual. It seems anytime something new comes along, pundits are quick to grab the headlines and point out all the foibles of old technology while whipping up interest in any shiny new technology that's come along.

In this particular case, Moltzen plays up Facebook's new integration of e-mail and other social messaging within its interface, and surmises that it spells the end of e-mail as we know it. The idea is compelling, except for the fact that very few businesses would consider Facebook a secure platform for its messaging or email needs, other than as a convenient medium for communicating with customers.

For a more factual piece of evidence to dispute the notion that e-mail is on its deathbed, let's take a look at some hard numbers. Royal Pingdom aggregated statistics from several data sources and discovered 480 million new e-mail users came online in 2010. How many new Facebook users came online in 2010? Just 250 million, or 48 percent fewer than new e-mail users.

Granted, neither of these numbers are anything to sneeze at, and clearly both sectors are anything but anemic in their growth. There is a significant difference in the level of growth, however, and that's an important distinction when conventional wisdom implies that e-mail is a saturated market. It's an assumption that's not quite true, and therein lies the real story for growth.

According to Royal Pingdom, there were 1.88 billion e-mail users in the world in 2010, a vast majority of of whom live and work in developed nations. In developing countries where Internet access is not assured, the number of email users isn't as high, but there is a huge potential for growth in e-mail access as technology spreads.

So, what's the growth potential for Facebook, and social media overall? Will it spread to these emerging markets, too? There are three reasons why I believe Facebook -- nor any current social media platform -- won't become be a universal communications platform anytime soon.

First, Facebook is resource intensive. It has graphics, games, applications, and a large variety of other interactive tools that enhance the Facebook experience, especially for broadband users. Unfortunately, that's part of the problem -- broadband is not universally accessible and won't be a for a very long time. When Internet access comes to emerging markets, it will be slow and steady -- a much better media for email. Web-based e-mail can be optimized for slower networks, whereas Facebook cannot.

Second, Facebook is culturally centric (as are other social media platforms). Although Facebook has an international audience, it is by no means the only social media option out there. Different nations have their own sites that are more in tune with local cultures and news. This bias isn't deliberate on the part of Facebook; but it's a valid observation. Facebook is not likely to be universally accepted for the same reason not everyone in the world speaks English,German, or Chinese -- people hold tightly to their cultural experiences. E-mail is more conducive to international deployment simply because it's a medium where cultural bias does not apply.

Finally, Facebook is centrally-controlled. No matter how much Facebook adapts to an emerging market, it will always be under the control of a central authority that inherently limits user-choice. From e-mail providers to computer- and web-based e-mail clients, users have options. Collaborative messaging systems hosted at the regional or local level can provide even more choice -- something Facebook will never want to do.

Perhaps one of the most pertinent reasons why the death of e-mail isn't imminent is there are simply too many good open source alternatives to Facebook's messaging system. Zimbra, Alfresco, Spicebird and, of course, our line of products at Open-Xchange offer greater scalability and configuration options for corporations and hosting providers. Unlike Facebook, these solutions don't try to be all things for all people. They do one thing and do it well: messaging.

In the end, solid, reliable messaging is what business-level users want -- not the apps, "likes", and "pokes" that included in Facebook and other social media platform packages. E-mail isn't dying, but if something does come along to take its place it won't be Facebook.