Time for an Email Tune Up

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What with Toyota posting its first quarterly loss last month and our new Community-Organizer-in-Chief looking to retool the auto industry, the only good news is that gas is not $4 a gallon anymore. But these items remind me that it is time for different kind of transportation tune up, mainly our data transportation networks.

Most of us have come to rely on email as the main artery of moving data into and out of our enterprises. After all, we are all connected via email. Many office workers bring up email as their first application in the morning and even login from home at nights and on weekends. And as more people have smartphones, sending emails when you aren't at your desk isn't such a big deal now – even our COIC does that too.

I was reminded how lousy email is at transportation when I tried to email a proposal to a prospective client of mine today. First, the email didn't get through. Then I sent him an Instant Message, to confirm receipt. The second email didn't attach the document properly, and finally the third time was the charm. All this to send a 50 kB Word file – imagine if I had something larger that would be automatically rejected.

This reminds me of another story that took place many years ago, at the dawn of the Internet era when we still used gateways to get email from other networks, such as Compuserve and MCIMail (may their memories be honored). Someone had tried to send me a big attachment (at the time, that might have been about 50 kB too!) that literally got stuck in our gateway. No email could be received for several days until we figured out that the "big" file was gumming up the works, and once we deleted it all was well again.

Email is just not the best transportation vehicle. And like our struggling auto industry, we need to look for alternative-fueled methods to move our bits around.

For those of us old enough to remember file transfer protocols, there is that (and the more secure SCP) to move data from point A to point B. But these aren't very elegant, and get trapped by firewalls and other security measures, as they should be.

Then there are the various file-sending services that go by such names as SendThisFile.com, YouSendIt.com and DropSend.com etc. There is even DilbertFiles.com, which I thought was a joke from the comic strip but is actually a legit service that I guess has some license from Scott Adams to use the hapless cubical dweller. These all operate pretty much the same way, taking the transportation over from the email network, and just using emails to notify your recipients that you have a file transfer pending. You authenticate yourself via a Web browser to both send and receive your file.

What is interesting lately is that email is also being replaced as the notification network too: either by IMs or by Twitter. I have mentioned this in my last essay, because of the generational divide and the fact that email is now too slow to notify people that live on Facebook, or just use their cell phones for Net data access, or because people get too much email and they just miss the memo in their inbox.

IMs have a lot going for them. They are easy to use, they are almost immediate, and they are now pretty much accepted in the fleets of corporate communications vehicles. But they aren't any better at transferring data than email is – and in some cases corporations block attachments, or users can't get them because they are running multiple client programs like Trillium or Adium that don't always play well with sending and receiving attachments (does this sound familiar)? And IM is ideal for one-to-one communications, but quickly breaks down when one-to-many conversations are required.

What about Twitter? This seems to have lots of promise as a notification system, although it is still somewhat creaky, sort of like when the first transcontinental railroads went in the 1800s. The network can easily get overloaded, there are all sorts of tricks like using hash tags and business people using Twitter to monitor dissatisfied customers (Bank of America and Dell are two notable examples). They can work really well for notifying a lot of people quickly about real-time events, as we have seen with recent news stories in the past several months.

The trouble is that making the transition from an all-email network to this mixed bag of technologies is proving to be just as painful as what Detroit is going through right now with its cars. Maybe upgrades to Twitter can be included in part deux of the bailout express package. After all, it comes under the heading of critical national infrastructure. (I am somewhat kidding here).

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