Wireless Wonders

No news, just comment about mobile phones and services, from a veteran practitioner...3G, GPRS, WAP, Bluetooth, WiFi, etc...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Email, text and Metcalfe's Law (again)...

Metcalfe's Law says that the usefulness of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users (click for diagram). Clearly, there are other factors to consider, such as accessibility of the network. With texting, most of the users of the network have constant access because they carry the device with them.

On the other hand, with email, users are very often disconnected from the network. Therefore, the power of the network is diminished in real terms. The accessibility of these two networks is one of the attributes affecting how they get used.

Put simply, emails are seldom viewed as being time critical. The length of time between the user sending the message and the recipient reading is not critical. In fact, often the sender is more concerned with the sending of the message to meet some need, rather than the opening of the message at the other end. In other words, sending the email is often seen as the completion of a task, not the reading of it, which is another, almost separate, issue deferred to some time in the future.

Email can very often have a publishing quality: "Here's some information - read it when you like, act on it whenever you can". The reader subscribes to the information and acts in their own time. In essence, it is not person-to-person communication because very often the sender senses - and exploits - that their message is really being posted to an inbox, not directly to a person.

On the other hand, texting is more real-time and more like "talking". The sender has a view that their message is going straight to a person, not to their inbox.

Email is like placing a letter in someone's in-tray, whereas texting is like tapping them on the shoulder and saying look at this, whilst placing a message on a slip of paper in their hand. With email, a great deal of emotional emphasis is placed on sending. With texting, the emphasis is on the receiving. The technical reason for this is that texting has always been push-based. Therefore, a sent message is immediately brought to the attention of the recipient who will have their device with them at all times. This immediacy quality is missing with email, which is why the perception remains that emailing is to an "in-tray", not to a person.

For someone to need mobile access to their email, it is the information in their email messages that has to be important and sufficiently time-critical to warrant on-the-move access. There are very few people who need such access to their email, which is why there are so few mobile email users, by which I mean so few Blackberry users. I am using this as the yardstick for mobile email because most people have now heard of the Blackberry and it has been on sale for many years. If rapid access to email were really that critical, there would be a lot more users.

In the business world, time-critical person-to-person communication is still done by talking on the telephone. Increasingly, texting is used in the business world, but usually to reduce telephone costs and to overcome callee availability problems in certain contexts.

When many of us, myself included, set about building mobile email solutions at the birth of GPRS, we made an assumption which I think has proven incorrect. That assumption was that the massive rise in the importance of email meant that mobile access would be attractive. However, this seems not to be the case. What really matters is the importance of time-critical access to the information flows in email threads. There just aren't that many people who need email-bound information rapidly enough to warrant mobile access. Furthermore, access to email has improved anyway, with the ongoing ubiquity of laptops and remote access, especially from home-based broadband connections.

Finally, the notion that texting paves the way to mobile email is evidently untrue and apparently based on faulty logic because of the key differences mentioned above.

Does this mean that we should write-off mobile email? Not really. But it does mean that it isn't valued that highly by most of us and so it is important to remove any barriers to usage, such as current high pricing and poor usability. No doubt, as more devices become capable of usable (i.e. affordable, push-based) email, its usage will increase. There is also the possibility of reaching a tipping point where the number of active mobile email users creates a shift in usage patterns and our sense of time-sensitivity changes. Suddenly we might expect more rapid reaction to information changes than we currently do. There is no doubt that once exposed to mobile email and the "connectedness" it brings, it is easy to get used to.

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