Slight Aside: Text Messaging?
Email persists as the primary means of communication among internet users, at least those of a certain age. That said, there are clear signs that the younger generation is more interested in text messaging and Instant Messages than in email.
Text messaging is faster, simpler, and more instant than email. An email inbox tends to be left until its owner is ready to go through the messages and deal with them; an incoming text message tends to be answered sooner, if not immediately. There's a "conversational" feel to texting that email lacks.
This quote from Paul Golding is telling: "Email is like placing a letter in someone's in-tray, whereas texting is like tapping them on the shoulder and saying look at this, whilst placing a message on a slip of paper in their hand."
Text messages have become hugely popular, especially in Europe, but they were not originally created for consumer use. The idea was to use them as a means of sending network and account information to users, not as user-to-user communication. The instantaneous results and low cost (in comparison to voice calls) were what made them very popular. As phones themselves get more powerful and technically complex, text messaging may be replaced by other technologies--perhaps some development of Instant Messaging. But I'd be willing to bet it will be known as texting for some time afterwards, especially here in the U.K. where it has become embedded in youth culture.
But I digress... let's get back to email and take stock of our situation.
Where Do We Go Now?
Having established that email has a complicated history, tends to drive people crazy, has had entire books written about keeping it under control, and is broken beyond all repair for some people, let's try to work out what we can do--practically speaking--to make using it less of a hassle.
For casual and lightweight email users, there's nothing at all wrong with a good old-fashioned POP account and a copy of Apple's Mail. Assuming the ISP at the other end can be relied on, Mail copes very well with the basics and has the intuitive kind of interface that casual users can get along with (which isn't to say that pro users can't get a lot from it, too). Webmail is still an option here, of course. We know that casual users like webmail--look at the huge international success of Hotmail.
For professionals who live half their working day in email, combining IMAP and Gmail makes sense, but only if they (and their employers) are prepared to place sufficient trust in Google to keep business secrets secret.
In practical terms this makes a lot of sense, since using Gmail while travelling can help you get around SMTP problems (where your normal SMTP server might only permit you access if you're connecting via a certain ISP or IP range). Combining the two means Gmail effectively becomes an online backup of every email message in your IMAP account--a free, huge, and easily searched backup.
This combination is clearly popular with geeks, too. In my personal experience, and despite privacy concerns from many people, a lot of geeks I know have switched fully or partially to Gmail from existing IMAP setups. Some just use Gmail as a backup, or depend on it as a spam filter or for managing mailing lists; others depend on it completely for all their daily email tasks. There are, of course, those who say the privacy concerns are nothing to worry about; at least, they are no more of a concern than almost any other email service. People have grown used to the idea that email is, in general, a secure and private means of communication, which it is far from being (unless you take a proactive step and use encryption).
For those who are uncomfortable about the privacy issues, there are alternatives. Fastmail is a popular choice, offering very flexible IMAP accounts with webmail for a reasonable annual fee. Hushmail is an attractive service, built entirely around the premise of security for your email.
POP? Gmail? IMAP?
And yet email persists, it grows, and people are always interested in new devices that support it. As mobile devices evolve, our messaging services will, too. I think we're going to see a lot of change in the next few years.
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