Social networking will displace corporate e-mail

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In January, I posted "Microsoft Office is obsolete, or soon will be," which generated heated comment debate and accusations of linkbaiting. Never. I'm always serious about this stuff, and I tend to be right. Today, Gartner added a little oomph to my assertion, claiming that within four years, 20 percent of business users will replace e-mail with social networking services. Really? I think Gartner is being a wee bit conservative.

"Today, social paradigms are converging with e-mail, instant messaging (IM) and presence, creating new collaboration styles," Monica Basso, Gartner research vice president, said in a statement. "Technology is only an enabler; culture is a must for success. The rigid distinction between e-mail and social networks will erode. E-mail will take on many social attributes, such as contact brokering, while social networks will develop richer e-mail capabilities."

Basso's statement is good context for understanding why Microsoft has added social networking capabilities to Outlook and to SharePoint -- the latter product also increasingly is looking like Office's future replacement. Then there is Microsoft Lync. These products provide valuable forward-looking social-sharing features, while trying to preserve the relevance of existing Microsoft software. Office 365 fits in, too.

Problem: Communications are changing too rapidly. Yesterday, I participated in the third day of the OpenMobile Summit in San Francisco. I told several people that 50 years from now (if not sooner), historians will look back at this time period the way they do the industrial revolution. So much disruptive change -- that's culturally as much as economically or technologically -- has taken place in such short time, and it's accelerating. YouTube officially launched in November 2005. Facebook opened to the public in 2006; Twitter launched the same year. Apple launched iPhone in June 2007 and the iOS App Store opened about a year later. The first Android handset shipped in autumn 2008. Services like Qik, Pandora, Tumblr and many other social or mobile apps debuted within the last three to four years. Facebook has over 500 million subscribers; YouTube is the most-watched video service on the planet; Twitter has about 200 million monthly visitors; Android is No. 2 most-shipped mobile OS; Apple's iPhone ranks fourth in global handset sales; iOS App Store has 300,000-plus applications. These products and services are generally all successful in a relatively short timespan.

In January's post, I explained:

The new applications stack, which is outside of Microsoft monopolies, is mobile device to cloud service. This application stack also is more in sync with the kind of content most popularly produced outside of large corporations: Blogs, photos, videos, tweets and social network postings, among others. These content types have little or nothing to do with wordprocessing, spreadsheet or presentation applications.

As significantly, mobile applications usurp the need for productivity applications, by extending their utility to specific needs such as Facebook sharing, entertainment, mobile finance, search or personal communications. No Office is required. The people who download applications from Apple, BlackBerry, Google, Nokia, Palm or even Microsoft mobile app stores don't need Office -- or Windows, for that matter. These applications are lightweight and many are Web connected.

How much do you need Outlook for communications that matter, if you use services like Facebook or LinkedIN? Please feel free to answer that question in comments and the survey below (You can choose up to two answers). Already, most of my interpersonal communications take place outside of e-mail. For example, I'm more likely to direct message someone over Twitter than to send e-mail. As for Office, it's not on my PC. I don't need a productivity suite because I produce different content today than, say, five years ago. Increased mobile phone use is another reason.

"Mobile collaboration will increase for all categories of workers, and organizations can either take the lead, or be led by their users," Basso said in the statement. "The most progressive organizations won't be afraid to explore the innovative communications and collaboration models enabled by new devices and social services allow their employees to generate innovative ideas by experimenting with them."

That's good advice but wishful thinking. The historical pattern is clear and well documented: Most of the best business productivity-boosting technologies -- in rough order of adoption, cell phones, PDAs, laptops, cloud services and smartphones -- came into enterprises by the backdoor. Employees used them long before IT offered anything. Could it possibly be different now?

Looking not as far ahead, Gartner predicts that Microsoft and Research in Motion will "own" -- whatever that means -- 80 percent of the market for wireless e-mail software. So what? The Android Army will all use push mail from Microsoft Exchange? Please feel free to answer that question in comments, too.

So much has changed in just four years. I don't really see how Gartner can accurately predict what will happen in another four years, although the shift away from e-mail to social networking services -- or a hybrid of the two -- makes sense. Gartner's numbers may be a wee bit conservative, as they have been with other recent forecasting.

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