Despite the booming popularity of social networking like Facebook and Twitter, a relic from the 1980s remains the most-used feature of the Internet. Here’s why email is still the glue that binds the Web together, and why the end may not be as near as you think.
What’s the Internet’s “killer app?” You know, that thing that makes the Internet so necessary and coveted people have to have it. Is it Facebook, with its more than 850 million users? How about Twitter, with an estimated 500 million users? What about Amazon, with an estimated 100 million customers worldwide? What about instant messaging? VoIP? Streaming video—maybe YouTube or Netflix? What about BitTorrent?
Believe it or not, the answer is still email. Humble, humble email.
According to a new international poll conducted by Ipsos Global Public Affairs on behalf of Reuters, some 85 percent of Internet users around the world use email for communication. However, there does seem to be a major shift underway when it comes to social media: Worldwide, some 62 percent of Internet users communicate via social networking sites, and in some countries the percentages are much higher, with nearly three quarters of all Argentines, Russians, and South Africans visiting social media sites. However, some cultures simply haven’t embraced it: in Japan, only 35 percent of online users tap into social media services.
Why is email still so popular after more than 30 years, and how are social media and newer forms of Internet communication stacking up?
You’ve got mail
Email owes its popularity to its ubiquitousness and low technical requirements. Although a stunning amount of email traffic these days relies on HTML formatting, embedded images, file attachments, and other enhancements, core email technology hasn’t changed much in three decades. Yup! The mechanisms for Internet email were first codified way back in 1982 with RFC 821, written by Internet legend Jon Postel. Postel laid out the essential messaging framework for Internet-connected computers (what today we’d call ISPs or service providers) to exchange and forward messages. To be sure, the technology was raw and has been updated many times since (attachments and multi-part messages were standardized in the early 1990s, for instance). And arguably, the initial implementation of email gave birth to the spamming industry. But the bottom line is that you can still build a bare-bones email system using the technology Postel laid out in 1982 — in fact, that’s not an uncommon exercise in introductory computing classes.
This simplicity and longevity means it’s easy to build email support into virtually any Internet-capable device or service. And nine times out of ten the work has already been done. Long-standing, well-tested email clients and systems are already out there just waiting to be plugged in.
The result is that email is essentially the single Internet service available to almost any Internet user, whether they’re connected via a notebook 35,000 feet over Nebraska, noodling on a handheld gaming system at the back of a classroom, trying to ignore their mobile phone during a boring meeting, or waiting for a seat at an Internet cafe in Shanghai — almost everyone has access to email.
Ipsos’s poll results resoundingly confirm email’s popularity. Across the 24 countries where respondents were polled, 85 percent of respondents use the Internet to send and receive email within the previous three months. Some countries have even higher proportions: the leader is actually Hungary, where 95 percent of users send and receive email. Sweden, Belgium, Indonesia, Argentina, and Poland all have email use rates of 90 percent or more. Developed Western economies like the the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and Canada aren’t far behind — rates are all between 88 and 90 percent — with China, South Africa, Australia, and Russia all above the global average with email penetration at 87 or 86 percent.
Where is email not widely used? Of the 24 counties surveyed, Saudi Arabia ranked last, with 46 percent of respondents saying they used email. (It may be worth noting Saudi Arabia is the only absolute monarchy represented in the poll, but it’s not the only majority-Muslim nation: Turkey and Indonesia are also in the mix.) The next lowest-ranked country in the poll was India, where 68 percent of respondents reported using email.
As a small example of the power of email, a separate Ipsos poll found that consumers vastly prefer to receive promotions and special offers via email rather than text, even though shopping with smartphone-in-hand is on the rise.
So how is social networking shaping up as a killer app? Better in some places than others. Across the 24 countries in the poll, the overall penetration rate for social networking was 62 percent. However, in Indonesia the rate was a stunning 83 percent, a surprising 7 percent higher than second-place Argentina, where 76 percent of users claimed to have used social media in the previous three months. And there are more surprises in the list of countries that landed above the global average: Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Spain, Hungary, Mexico, Poland, Great Britain, and Turkey all reported social media use rates of 65 percent or higher, and Brazil was right in the middle with 62 percent.
Notice anything missing from that list? Lots of developed western economies. The United States is just below the global average for social media use, with a 61 percent score. Italy matches that 61 percent; Australia, Belgium, Canada, and France are even lower with 60, 57, 55, 53, and 50 percent of respondents saying they use social media, respectively. They’re all beaten or (at best) matched by China and India, which each had rates of 60 percent.
Where is social networking not seeing strong adoption? Again, Saudi Arabia is an outlier, with an adoption rate of just 42 percent. But if there’s one place where social media has been a dud, it’s Japan: just 35 percent of respondents say they’d used social media in the previous three months.
To be sure, all these figures represent strong adoption rates. Any technology would be considered a stunning success with these figures. And Ipsos’s definition of social media is very broad: it includes not just outright social networking services like Facebook and Twitter, but also things like online forums and blogs.
On a global basis, social media’s impact is clear: the majority of Internet users — more than 6 out of 10 — have embraced social media as a communication tool. That’s incredibly impressive for technology that’s really less than 10 years old. Further, social media is often fundamentally different from email because users tend to engage with entire communities, rather than individuals.
VoIP and online dating
The Ipsos poll also looked at respondents’ use of VoIP and online dating. VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) has been hailed for years as a revolutionary communications technology because it enabled the equivalent of international phone calls for free or (when connecting to landlines or mobile networks) at greatly reduced dates. The standout in the field has been Skype, which was acquired by then spun off from eBay earlier in the decade, then snapped up by Microsoft almost a year ago in an $8.5 billion deal. The industry wisdom at the time was that Microsoft’s embrace of VoIP technology would take the technology mainstream.
Windows 8 will be the first version to integrate Skype at a deep level, and only time will tell if Microsoft will see success with it. However, if Ipsos’ poll is any indicator, that success is likely to be overseas rather than in Microsoft’s home markets. Globally, the poll finds an average of just 14 percent of Internet users use VoIP technology — that’s not even 3 out of 20 people. However, VoIP does see much stronger adoption rates in some markets. Russia leads the way with over one third (36 percent) reporting they use VoIP — then come Turkey, India, Hungary, and (surprisingly) Saudi Arabia, with rates all above 20 percent.
Where has VoIP failed to catch on? Brazil and France are at the bottom of the pack, with just 4 and 5 percent of respondents saying they’ve used VoIP. The United States is right there at the bottom, with just 6 percent of respondents using VoIP.
In developed economies, adoption of VoIP may be hindered by the easy availability of traditional phone networks. Many mobile services eliminate domestic long-distance charges. Lack of VoIP adoption may signal that users’ communications needs are being met by traditional services, and that VoIP is more strongly embraced in countries where users have more need for international calling or working around local communications operators.
And online dating? It’s only a hit in Brazil. The poll found, on average, 11 percent of respondents have used the Internet for online dating. The United States and Japan were at the bottom of the list, with just 4 percent and 2 percent of respondents saying they used online dating services. However, some 52 percent of Brazilian respondents said they used the Internet for online dating — that’s double the percentage of Russia, which came in at number two with 26 percent. And, curiously, Saudi Arabia was in third place with 24 percent. Across all 24 countries, the poll found 14 percent of men use online dating services, but only 8 percent of women.
Can anything kill email?
Email may remain Internet users’ most-common communication medium, but the fact remains that most Internet users probably find email frustrating. Between spam, formatting problems, synchronization issues, and trying to manage multiple addresses, even longtime Internet vets find managing email a frustrating experience. There have been lots of attempts to unseat email as the Internet’s killer app — Facebook Messages is probably the latest high-profile effort. Will any of them ever succeed?
Probably not anytime soon. Email has more than history on its side; it has ubiquity and very low fundamental requirements. Social networking services including blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and others all have relatively high technological bars. Web-based services are constantly dropping older browers, or introducing new features that only work on particular platforms. Mobile apps for smartphones and tablets may be comparatively lightweight compared to a full-blown Web browser, but they’re also subject to rapid technological shifts. One need look no further than Twitter’s so-called “OAuthcalypse” that wiped scores of third-party Twitter clients from the planet, and left many users without upgrade paths. Similarly, some people have been left behind when services like Facebook Chat drop support for older browsers, and when services rely on things like Flash, HTML5, or other technologies that may not be widely deployed. Yes, millions and millions of social media users will upgrade their gear to keep in touch with their friends, families, and communities. But for every upgrade and raised requirement, the pool of people who can participate shrinks before it gets larger.
But email? A twenty-year-old computer can connect to the Internet and receive email just fine. Email just works — and it doesn’t look like anything is going to change that in the near future.