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Reports Of E-Mail's Death Are Exaggerated

It's safe to say that once the online magazine Slate writes about a tech trend, that trend is either over or rapidly becoming passé. So it is with last week's story, "The Death of Email." The notion that e-mail, shoved aside by more youthful and immediate forms of communicating such as IM, text messaging, and Twitter, is going the way of the fax machine has been around for some time.That notion has become prevalent enough, though, that last Friday a bunch of investors and entrepreneurs got together in Manhattan to discuss the question of what comes next. Among the group were Brad Feld, managing director at Foundry Group and Mobius Venture Capital, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, Matt Blumberg, founder of Return Path, Phil Hollows, creator of FeedBlitz, and a few others.

On one thing the assembled all pretty much agreed: the reports of the death of e-mail are vastly exaggerated.

"Everybody who's talking about the death of e-mail is for s***," says Feld. "The whole notion is ridiculous. But it's important to understand the dynamics around messaging more broadly."

Everyone above the age of 25 has had the experience, noted by Chad Lorenz in Slate, of being around a younger relative or friend who is glued to their IM or text messaging device or Facebook page 24/7. That doesn't mean, however, that those habits won't change once they enter the stodgy business world of professional electronic communication -- i.e., e-mail.

The good thing about the multiplying forms of alternate communications is that it's an expanding universe, not a contracting one. And that will mean opportunity for entrepreneurs and innovators. "The neat thing from an investor's perspective is that it's increasing chaos, not decreasing," Feld remarks.

One obvious opportunity is in somehow linking together all these disparate messages flying through the ether, something Google is clearly working on (with acquisitions including last summer's purchase of Postini). More powerful would be finding a way to make more useful all the data that lives in Outlook or other e-mail applications -- a far more comprehensive and meaningful personal data store than, say, your Facebook friends page.

"That data exists, but nobody is doing much with it," observes Feld. "Instead we're using these overlays, like Facebook -- we're manually creating those connections that already exist in your e-mail archive."

Of course, it's entirely possible that e-mail will become obsolete, overtaken by more telegraphic ways of communicating. Here's what PC Magazine columnist John Dvorak has to say on the subject:

"Business e-mail still seems to be flourishing, but personal e-mail appears to be on the decline. Two or three years ago everything was done by e-mail. This is no longer true."

That column, by the way, was written in May 2004.