How we (don't) use e-mail
Text chats have been in Skype since the very beginning. And since early this year, you can chat with multiple contacts in a group chat, in addition to one-on-one chats. Chatting is one of Skype’s main features apart from calling and contact management. And we’d like to tell you of our hidden agenda of making Skype Chat an e-mail killer.
Well… that’s of course a bit of an overstatement as you may have figured. There’s no reason to kill e-mail — it hasn’t done any harm to any of us. But just as we predicted, chat is considerably changing the e-mail use patterns of many people. When working with Skype Chat, you need to send fewer e-mails.
“Nothing new here,” you may think. “This is generally true to all Instant Messaging type of software.” And you’re mostly right — Skype Chat has indeed many properties in common with similar software provided by other vendors, who asked to remain unnamed here. Still, we believe we’ve done some interesting things, especially when comparing to e-mail sending.
So, when we were working on chat, we had to come up with reasons, and implementation supporting them, that would be make you think twice before you’d send that next e-mail or Instant Message in another system, and make you go “hmmm… oh wait, maybe Skype Chat would be better for this?” Because there wouldn’t have been made any point to create something that you’d not want or like to use.
So here’s why we think the chat rocks, and you might want to use this for your instant and persistent person-to-person or person-to-group communication needs the next time you need to talk to other people.
* **multi-mode communications.** In e-mail, people are identified just by e-mail addresses or maybe names matched to those addresses in your address book. When you want to send a file to them, it’s essentially the same e-mail channel. When you want to call them or talk to them over instant messages, you must switch to a different channel, which would be telephone or a separate instant messaging program. In Skype, we believe that it must be easy to use different modes of communication and the need to switch between them may arise instantly and be as seamless as can be. So suppose you get a chat message that is total rubbish or absolute gem, and you want to call the author in person to congratulate them on their achievement. In Skype, this would be just a click of the mouse. With e-mail, you’d have to look that person up and switch to another program. Which may or may not be easy, depending on how your “system” is set up. In Skype, the playing ground is more level for everyone since you don’t need a “system” to be set up in the first place.
* **zero configuration.** We at Skype don’t really believe in configuring stuff. Things should just work. Which is the case after you install Skype, but not always so with e-mail. You have to set up your account name and password, IMAP/POP3 and SMTP server addresses and ports, perhaps some IMAP folder paths and SSL settings.. am I sounding like a geek yet? And it becomes worse when you travel with a laptop because SMTP is usually open only in your home network, and when somewhere else, you may have to reconfigure your outgoing server to the one provided by your local connection provider, or change the port/authentication settings to some special ones provided by your home network, or… I know I gave up after a while. With Skype, whether needing to exchange just text or large files, you select your contact, open the chat window and fire off the message.
* **file sending and attachments.** In e-mail systems, the attachment size limit is often something like 2MB or 5MB or 10MB. If you have a file to distribute that goes beyond that, you have a problem. You either have to use an external file distribution service including signing up for it and making sure its good enough for you and the likes, or arrange for a get-together to physically transfer the file from one computer to another. In a worse case, when distributing a large file to many people by e-mail, you may endanger the stability of your whole e-mail system. The way e-mail servers work is that if you send say a 5 MB file to 10 people, the file size actually becomes increased by 25% to 33% due to e-mail encoding overhead, and the e-mail containing the file needs to be copied into a separate instance, for all the recipients which in case of this example may be close to 70 MB. Now multiply this by ten, say when there’s a need to send many large files by different people at the same time, and you may run into the risk of running your server simply out of disk space. In Skype chat, this issue doesnt exist simply because there’s no e-mail server — everything happens between the sender’s and the recipient’s computers without any intermediate overhead.
* **less spam.** We don’t say there isn’t spam in Skype. There certainly is some and we’ve seen enough of it to get us worried and thinking of what more can we do about it. But we make it easy for you to avoid spam, mainly by providing efficient privacy settings and making it easy to reject unwanted communications. So when you are using less email and are relying more on Skype communications, you also have to spend less time and nerves on filtering the unwanted stuff out. You eliminate the problem by setting your privacy filter to a setting that simply doesn’t expose you to communications from contacts you don’t want to hear about.
* **persistent chats** (this originally said “persistent topic areas”, but “persistent chats” is a more accurate term and sounds nicer too.) Sometimes you send emails just to inform others of something, but more often, you need their reactions and feedback, so e-mails become these long winding threads where people randomly comment on top and in the middle of others’ text and address/CC others who chip in their own version… and in the end it becomes a bit difficult to manage. Now contrast that to chats where you can keep things organized by topic areas, instead of having individual messages from everyone about various topics cluttered around in your inbox.
* **presence and immediate feedback.** When you send an e-mail to someone, you never know if that person is on vacation, away from computer for a few minutes or ready to respond immediately. If you’re lucky, you may get an auto-response if the person is away for a longer period of time. With Skype chat, you can see if the person is online and available, which indicates you may get a response fairly soon. And if the person is offline, you can see when was he “last seen” (meaning when your Skype client has the latest record of him online) — so if someone was last seen two weeks ago, you may want to check his whereabouts.
It wouldn’t be fair if we said that Skype Chat is an absolutely flawless and perfect system, because it would be the first such thing ever made. We can think of several reasons why to use e-mail over chat and we do it ourselves, but we’re working on improving Skype in these areas.
* **more compatible, support for “legacy systems” and person/machine-to-machine communications.** E-mail has been around for tens of years — it is one of the most compatible communication mechanisms around. Many systems produce their output as e-mail, or expect input from it. A lot of automatic notifications and machine-to-machine communications happen in the format of e-mail. We’re exploring ways of enhancing the Skype API capabilities in that area, but until then, e-mail may be your best shot.
* **formatting.** Many e-mail clients let you format your e-mail in fancy ways and include bold, italic, bulleted lists and other types of formatting. Tastes differ — you currently can’t do this in chat, but we don’t particularly miss it either as we weren’t doing it in e-mail ourselves. If needing to convey richly formatted information, we have found it’s more useful to format it as a standalone document or wikipage, instead of e-mail.
* **archiving and searching.** E-mail archiving and searching systems have been in development by numerous parties for many years and reached a state of maturity. Skype Chat is still evolving. We believe it is fairly easy, with the help of “Recent chats”, event notifications and chat bookmarking, to keep track of your current ongoing chats and access them conveniently. Access to historic information is an area that needs further work — you currently cannot do things like access chats on a timeline, do a global search from all chats to find some messages containing some string from a particular contact, etc.
Your feedback on this is appreciated. Does any of the above make sense at all, and you’ve also found chat is more convenient than e-mail? Or do you find the opposite? Do you think there are things painfully missing, or the other way, chat has too much bloat and unneeded features? Let us know.
UPDATE: the story keeps going on the net. Here are some more posts on the same or related subject.
* [Ian Kennedy: Email is broken](http://iankennedy.typepad.com/flashpoint/2005/06/email_is_broken.html)
* [Jeremy Wright: Skype: The New Email?](http://www.ensight.org/archives/2005/07/30/skype-the-new-email/)