The clue was in the name. Back in the mists of time (all right, 1982), when email was first invented, its inspiration was clear. It was seen as "electronic mail" – a digital form of a letter. For years people wrote emails in much the same way as they had scrawled letters with pen and ink.
Now email is all-pervasive and, for any organisation with staff spread across different locations, utterly essential.
For example, an international medical charity we work with has 1,400 staff scattered across the globe. On an average day its London-based team sends and receives more than 11,000 emails – some of them involving life-or-death medical decisions.
But as the volume of emails we send and receive has grown, so has our way of writing. Speed, brevity and clarity are essential. New technology has changed our expectations of the way we communicate too. While emails can take a few minutes to reach their destination, a generation brought up on texting and Twitter expects to be able to talk to lots of people instantly and simultaneously.
One way they can do this is through instant messaging services such as Skype, the basic version of which is free and which allows charity staff to exchange instantaneous text messages, as well as talk to and see each other by video.
For organisations whose staff are operating in developing world countries without reliable phone lines, it is often the only way to talk other than by using expensive satellite phones.
But some of the most commonly used applications are web-based – and with users registered as individuals, their communications can be hard to track by IT departments. Skype was designed for personal rather than organisational use.
All for one, one for all
Now software developers have responded by offering all these functions in combined packages such as Microsoft’s Lync.
It offers what it is described as "unified communications" – instant messages, audio calls, video calls and conferencing – all on the same platform as conventional email.
Users can easily flick between them all – rather than having to use separate applications for each and access them from a computer or portable device. All they need is a Wifi or 3G connection.
The appeal of such a system for the charity itself is security and oversight. Messages are encrypted and archived just like email messages.
This is why some charities are starting to use unified communications systems instead of conventional email.
Systems like this began as niche products and were largely confined to technology junkies. Sound familiar? Once the same was true for email.
But now unified communications are becoming mainstream, does this mean conventional email’s days are numbered?
I’m not so sure. Just as email didn’t quite kill letter writing, unified communications are more likely to complement email rather than replace it.
Unified communications do allow colleagues to interact and share documents quickly and easily, but email is still the primary way in which charities communicate electronically with people outside the organisation.
But the parallels are compelling – if email brought letters into the digital age, unified communications have brought the instant messages of Twitter and texting from people’s leisure time into the work environment.
If unified communications do kill anything, it is more likely to be the deskphone than email. But don’t get me started on that.
John Dryden is chief technology officer at the charity IT specialists itlab