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The never-ending quest to dethrone email

Serdar Yegulalp | Jan. 21, 2015
Pretenders to the messaging throne have been many, but email still reigns. Here’s how that might change.

Build a better mousetrap, as the cliché has it, and the world will beat a path to your door. That line of thinking has even been applied to the most rudimentary corners of the technology world: standards and protocols that have stuck around for decades, yet viewed as creaky and badly in need of replacement. But few old-guard standards have seen as many pretenders to the throne as the SMTP/POP3/IMAP email triumvirate has. If only someone could come up with an alternative that did everything email did but better, more securely, and with less hassle, wouldn't it be worth it?

Over the decades, dozens if not hundreds of companies, initiatives, and products have tried to find a way to move past the SMTP/POP3/IMAP standard. Some have found niches for themselves, despite being proprietary. Many disappeared without a trace. But all try to solve email's ills in one of three ways: Reinvent emaiI from the inside out with an entirely new protocol; ameliorate email's peccadillos by making it more intuitive and less aggravating; or shift the work traditionally done in email to other venues.

Here we break down each of these strategies and highlight the current contenders most likely to affect the future of email.

The quest to create a new protocol
Devising an entirely new protocol for email would be the most effective way to move email forward. The problem is, it's the most difficult path to success.

What makes such an approach attractive is the potential to fix many of email's problems -- spam, security, inefficient protocol design -- at the root. By replacing aging standards that evolved in an ad hoc fashion with new ones that were crafted intentionally to account for decades of real-world experiences with email, the IT world would enjoy a much more solid foundation for messaging going forward.

Of course, reinventing at the root is nearly impossible, for two reasons.

First, creating a new protocol everyone can agree to use is difficult, to put it mildly. Such developments typically take shape only when an entity with significant clout advocates for its use; even then, nothing is guaranteed. Google, for instance, has hatched its alternative to the IMAP standard (vintage 1986), but it applies only to Gmail. As such, getting developers to build for this alternative solves only a tiny corner of the problem. Also, any new protocol would have to be supported on clients and servers. Sure, the two have moved closer together thanks to Web-based mail clients, but mobile devices and desktop users would need to be kept in that loop.

A second problem with the new-standard route -- potentially thornier than the first -- is that transitioning existing SMTP/POP/IMAP users to any new standard would likely require almost too much disruption. One possible solution, which addresses the above problem as well, has been proposed by a startup named Inbox (not to be confused with Google Inbox). Inbox's plan is to roll out a replacement protocol for email by wrapping existing email systems with a newly devised protocol and API set. Eventually, if enough people adopt the Inbox protocols, the old systems can be deprecated in favor of the new, and the resulting protocols can (one would assume) be submitted as an IETF RFC.


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