Goodbye to E-Mail?

E-mail abuse has enterprises exploring other options.

Earlier this month, I convened a panel discussion on spam at the Los Angeles debut of Ziff Davis Medias Business4Site conferences. In preparing my charts for that session, I was forced to consider just how bad the situation has become for enterprise e-mail users during the last several weeks. I found data suggesting that some enterprises are ready to move from the prototype phase of next-generation communications, based on cheap but uncontrollable e-mail, to more robust approaches using portals or application-to-application links.

Admittedly, some of my data sources have vested interest in magnifying the problem. Overall, however, Im finding enough consistency in the numbers and enough anecdotal support from users that Im inclined to accept the view I obtained from an afternoon on

For example, the fraction of e-mail comprising spam rose from 58 percent in December 2003 to 64 percent in May, according to measurements by anti-spam provider Brightmail. Thats an annual growth rate of 83 percent in spam per desired message, but total distraction grows even more quickly as people use e-mail more often: Nucleus Research estimates the average worker receives 29 unwanted messages each day, more than twice the figure of 13 that the company found a year ago.

The cost of that distraction, as estimated by Nucleus and several other researchers, is close to $2,000 per employee per year in lost user productivity and in the help desk overhead of dealing with user confusion and error. To compound the problem, hot on the heels of instant messaging comes even more rapid growth in "spim" (spamming of IM), with Ferris Research estimating that this year will see a fourfold growth in annoying and distracting instant messages, from 500 million last year to 2 billion.

Beyond mere distraction are the messages that make phishing probes, aimed at getting people to disclose confidential information to sites that mimic trusted e-commerce players. The Anti-Phishing Working Group estimates that such attacks have exploded from about 400 in March to about 1,100 in April, with each attack involving anywhere from 50,000 to 10 million messages.

/zimages/2/28571.gifLawmakers and vendors are taking action against phishing. Click here to read the full story.

In addition to quantity, these abuses and attacks are growing in sophistication. Nucleus reports that users employing e-mail filters were typically receiving 26 percent fewer unwanted e-mails in the second quarter of last year than users without such protection but that this measure of effectiveness shrank to only a 20 percent reduction during the second quarter of this year.

Enterprise IT managers response may be nearing a tipping point. Rather than merely cranking up their filter thresholds or making other continuum responses, some organizations are considering more drastic changes. These include shifting back to pre-e-mail technologies—for example, surface mail and fax—for many tasks. In fact, an InsightExpress survey, conducted for Symantec, found that 40 percent of small businesses surveyed are considering substantially reducing their reliance on e-mail.

A USA Today story this month reported that the Arizona Employers Council, a nonprofit organization, estimates that such a change would cost it $500 per week in postal and related costs. The council might consider this a bargain, the story continued, compared with the costs of e-mail abuse and the nuisance of recipients not receiving messages because an e-mail filter or apprehensive user has blocked or deleted an item.

The functionality of e-mail has also been effectively reduced by rising concerns. Some users, for example, are finding that attachments are becoming effectively unusable because they multiply the risk of messages being discarded unread.

The strengths of e-mail—its ubiquitous and versatile, and it has low barriers to adoption—are also its weaknesses. Its not a good long-term enterprise solution now that attackers have learned how to exploit these attributes.

The blank slate of e-mail has given enterprises the freedom to visualize and experiment with future communication tools. Now that those rough sketches have taken form, its time to produce more rigorous blueprints, using more focused and less readily abused technologies such as Web services. E-mail will still have a role but not as the central nervous system of the 21st-century workplace.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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