Social networking to dispace email? Not likely

Email will be the glue that binds Facebook et al, says Preston Gralla

Given the growth of social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter, and the increasing use of collaboration tools such as Microsoft SharePoint, you may begin to wonder whether email's day in the sun is coming to an end.

Once the primary way we communicated electronically, email has begun to seem less central to our daily lives. It feels as if a tipping point has been reached. Businesses recognise the power of social networking sites to attract customers, build buzz and perform sophisticated research, and they see that collaboration tools can allow employees to work with one another and with people outside the company.

Email, it seems, is no longer the centre of the universe. So is it time to say goodbye to it as the core of business and personal communication? Will email go the way of the physically mailed letter — useful for certain purposes, but not the primary way that people keep in touch and collaborate?

Not if Microsoft or Google has its way. Both companies — and other, smaller ones — recognise the power of social networking and collaboration tools and understand how they're endangering email. And both are looking at ways to merge them with traditional email and make email once again the centre of the communications universe.

In the world envisioned by Microsoft and Google, email would become a hub for all electronic communications. It would merge all contacts from all services into one location, allow you to interact with others on social networking sites without leaving your email client or service, and aggregate all communication, including collaboration, in one location.

Both Microsoft and Google have already taken initial steps toward making it happen, as have other companies. Microsoft, for example, recently released the beta of Outlook Social Connector, which links Outlook to social networking sites. An individual connector is already available for LinkedIn, and one is in the works for Facebook. You can expect one for Twitter as well. The Outlook Social Connector will ship as part of Outlook 2010 and is available as a free download for Outlook 2003 and 2007.

Microsoft has also released detailed information about Outlook's .pst file structure so other developers can write applications for it and link to it — and don't be surprised if a good number of those applications are related to social networking.

Google, meanwhile, released Google Buzz, a somewhat confusing tool designed to integrate social networking with Gmail. Surprisingly, this is one instance where Microsoft has done a better job than Google, but expect future versions of Buzz to be more impressive.

Microsoft and Google aren't the only ones getting into the act. The free Outlook add-in Xobni already connects Outlook to Facebook and LinkedIn, and it does a better job of it than Outlook Social Connector. Another free Outlook add-in, Mainsoft's Harmony, connects Outlook to Google Docs and SharePoint document libraries to make collaboration easier.

All of these tools, as useful as they are, are still somewhat rudimentary. They can't, for example, display ongoing Twitter streams and don't allow for full integration with social networking sites. But that is because they are new. Eventually, your email client or service will become a central hub for all of your electronic communication.

This means enterprise IT will struggle with a host of issues, including privacy and security challenges and questions about how much two-way integration to permit with social networking sites. But the benefits far outweigh the costs of solving those problems. Email, both in business and for consumers, will once again reign supreme.