I have more faith that consumer-centric e-mail providers and newcomers (such as Zimbra, recently acquired by Yahoo!) will innovate more rapidly around e-mail than traditional enterprise software providers. Why? Vendors with huge market share that derive a tremendous amount of revenue from a particular product are less likely to undertake the type of transformation that might fundamentally threaten their existing financial model. Why would IBM or Microsoft do something that would undermine existing revenue streams? So instead, what we get in terms of re-inventing e-mail are pretty linear advancements. Release cycles also take too long with this products so the issue of agility and market responsiveness also comes into question. The linear progression of capabilities is not bad - but it is also not really moving the industry forward in any dramatic fashion. The one exception is mobile where I think traditional enterprise providers can still demonstrate innovation around mobile messaging.
Will enterprise software vendors look to infuse e-mail with more social features? Sure - part of what Microsoft has been showing with Knowledge Network touches on that aspect and vendors such as Tacit and Contact Networks have long "mined" e-mail to discover relationship patterns. The question is whether these larger vendors will look broadly across their portfolio of products and take a platform approach to improve messaging across channels rather than one stove-pipe at a time.
That's what makes something like Twitter so interesting. It's not locked into e-mail, IM, etc - any end-point can participate in the communication stream. Senders and receivers pick their own end-point to interact with the platform. The platform can have various filters added to "cull out" a particular conversation stream from the overall flow. I have a Twitter add-on to Outlook, Google Talk, Skype, Facebook and so on in addition to SMS and a web page front-end. This type of channel-switching hub works quite well and represents an architecture I can envision within an enterprise setting. But to do that, large vendors might hesitate if the result negatively impacted their existing revenue models from traditional products.
Innovation will always be stifled when decision-makers are unwilling to attack, as a competitor would, the very products or services that brought them to prominence in the first place.
Yahoo executives describe the company's 250 million email users globally as the "world's largest dormant social network." In recent years, the Sunnyvale, Calif., concern has added some features that allow individuals to see when friends who are also Yahoo users are online and to send instant messages to them without clicking over to Yahoo's instant-messaging software.
In a mock-up of additional social-networking features it is considering, Yahoo imagines users creating profile pages with such data as their birthdays. On their email welcome screens, individuals might be greeted by lists of friends celebrating birthdays and friends who have sent them emails. Yahoo is considering offering users incentives to identify their friends, such as the ability to email larger files to people in their social networks.
One experimental Yahoo service known internally as "Friend Finder" analyzes a user's email traffic and indicates the friends with whom a user has strong email connections. It bases its findings on the volume of incoming and outgoing traffic and such factors as the frequency and speed with which the two parties respond to each other. The service works with emails sent by non-Yahoo users as well.
"I have very little doubt that email will be sexy again in a way that people will say, 'Holy Smokes, I didn't see this coming,'" says Yahoo Senior Vice President Brad Garlinghouse. He cites research from July indicating that only 20% of Yahoo email users are MySpace users and just 10% are on Facebook.