As Yammer is bought out by Microsoft, are we a step closer to the end of email?

Does Microsoft's acquisition of Yammer spell the end of email?This week saw the much anticipated buyout of the so-called ‘Facebook for the workplace’, Yammer, by Microsoft for $1bn first reported two weeks ago.

There have been suggestions that the software giant will integrate the four year old social network into its Office suite. This move comes after research from comScore revealed that email use among 12-17 year olds dropped by 24% during 2011, with an overall fall in webmail usage of 6% so it would appear that Microsoft is covering itself for the possible demise of email in the near future.

This is certainly a subject that has been discussed frequently among commentators over the past few years and as companies increasingly gravitate toward social networking alternatives, such as Yammer or self designed systems for internal communications, could we really be witnessing the death of email?

Email certainly has its drawbacks – primarily the amount of time that it takes to sift through the junk and respond to the gems. This is one of the most popular arguments made by CEOs banning internal email. But then social media can be just as distracting and when a response is required immediately, or a comment is time sensitive, the interruption can be just as destructive to productivity and concentration.

Obviously at present, social networks are less targeted by spam and this is a major benefit. However as users move away from email, marketers will undoubtedly target promotions through other avenues – a phenomenon that we are already beginning to see develop as Facebook and Twitter look to advertisers to draw vital sources of income.

Another argument in favour of social networks vs email is the openness of the former. This is a particular advantage for people looking to connect with other, like-minded individuals. It also provides benefit for large corporations, with individual employees looking for advice or help in the workplace without knowing who to turn to.

The disadvantages here are obvious; the lack of privacy can be inappropriate and the immediacy of instant messaging can be risky, as written content can easily be misinterpreted.  Just look at the number of people who have brought on the wrath of employers/friends/families/the media – by posting rash comments on Twitter. Then again, the same has happened when a wrongly addressed email has gone viral, much to the sender’s embarrassment. Perhaps in future we will all be much more comfortable living in a more open society and will need to adapt to fit in – but that’s a discussion for another time.

Social media is less easy to track than email – this could be a negative or a positive depending on how you look at it. From the user’s point of view, it’s always more palatable to communicate without fear of incrimination later. But what if you need to refer to a conversation that you had a few months ago, only to find that it has already been lost in the digital ether? Does this mean that employees will have to take note of vital information using some other media? Surely that will create more bureaucracy and in turn, will take up more valuable time?

Digital communications offer an exciting landscape and one which is constantly changing. I believe that email will eventually become obsolete and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens much faster than some may think. Ironically it is partly due to email that ideas can now develop and be put into action much faster than they could 20 years ago.

At present both email and social media have very similar disadvantages. There are obvious problems if companies are each to be aligned to a discrete social network, internally, while still using email for external communication. I find it difficult to believe that adding another channel – on top of email, post, phone, etc – will truly optimise the use of employees’ time.

So, what then for the future? Eventually, perhaps, someone will come up with an improved and unified system, without the disadvantages outlined above. Perhaps Microsoft’s integration of Yammer will do the trick – but that is still to be seen. Or maybe we will all continue to use a variety of different systems, each for different purposes as our lives become increasingly complex. One way or another, the future is exciting – it seems like only yesterday that the fax machine and the pager were the height of sophistication. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Hannah Devoy, account executive, Fourth Day PR