Once upon a time email was novel. People were happy to get email, it was easy to deal with, and it was convenient. It was the wave of the future and it was going to make us more productive. Why ever call someone when you can just email?
You're in the middle of a project and, ping, you get an email. There's a little popup that begs you to go check your email, teasing you with first line or so. By the time you've finished answering you've forgotten where you were in your project and have to start over, only to get interrupted by another email. Seems terribly unproductive, doesn't it? Well according to a Lifehacker poll, 50% of their users handle their email this way (me included). It's why in Tim Ferriss's ever so popular 4-Hour Workweek he suggests hiring an assistant to do your email, thereby freeing yourself up from the email daily grind.
This has caused some to turn away from email instead turning to Web 2.0 apps like Facebook and Twitter. I use my email much more often as a notification system for Facebook, than as an actual email service. Only approved friends can contact you (depending on settings). In essence it's a way to gain access to a filtered version of email, allowing you to safely ignore most of your regular email. However, you could certainly argue that Facebook and Twitter only make our ADD tendencies worse with constant micro updates that call your attention (Do I really need to know your plane just landed in Chicago?).
And truthfully, can we really afford to ignore email? Well it depends who you are, but probably not. In the company where I work, we got an important email from a Fortune 100 company through a product feedback form, and, if we had de-prioritized email, their correspondence could very well have slipped through the cracks.
A trend on the other extreme is ultra email organization via an empty inbox. If you manage your email correctly, your inbox will be empty because email gets deleted or moved to folders once dealt with. As soon as email is dealt with it gets moved away, to another folder or to the trash can. Boing Boing has an inbox victory page where people (cornily) celebrate their email-less inboxes. There's a Google Tech talk by Merlin Mann endorsing the freedom and productivity an empty inbox creates.
Meanwhile, Gmail seems to be aiming to integrate all our correspondence desires in one place. Gmail chat is getting easier (and more people are using it) and now they've integrated AIM as well. They have so many updates going up, they have a blog devoted to the purpose. One of their new Gmail Lab features is "Email Addict," which sets up a 15 minute break from your email, where you are signed out of chat and you cannot see your new email. Pretty soon Gmail's going to seem like far too confining a name.
This summer email is on my mind because I'm working on a hot new Web 2.0 product called Email Center Pro. We're used to thinking of inboxes as belonging to just one person, I answer my mail, you answer yours, let's not get anyone else involved. Well, that doesn't work so well when you start dealing with company emails such as firstname.lastname@example.org. Email Center Pro allows collaboration of email inboxes, changing what would be a daunting task for one person into an easily divisible team effort. At the end of the day the collaboration hopefully gets you an empty inbox -- something that management can easily check up on to ensure everyone's doing their job. Big businesses can afford management solutions that cost tens of thousands of dollars, but this is the first solution truly accessible to the small business.
The future of email is anybody's guess. But I wouldn't be shocked to come back here next summer and find a Google sign on the door I walk through. But let me also ask you -- what's the next evolution of email?