We now send more email than postal mail, exchange drafts of reports via email, schedule meetings via email, and close deals via email. The list goes on and on.
The phenomenal growth and popularity of the Internet has been largely due to the growth and popularity of email usage over this past decade. Email is still the Internet's most popular application when measured both by the number of its users and the frequency of usage. American workers now send over a billion daily email messages, according to the International Data Corp. While the web has received a great deal of attention and press, email is the real untold Internet success story.
The success of email is relatively recent and the result of several factors. First and foremost is the ability to send email to anyone in the world. In 1990, most email systems had little or poor connectivity to the Internet. The concept of purchasing a vanity domain name to match one's business name or trademarks was unheard of, and the web still had yet to be invented. The vast majority of the world's countries had poor or no Internet connectivity.
But over the past decade the Internet became popular and obvious as the glue that would bind these disparate systems. Internet service providers were established in droves, and countries loosened government monopolies on data communications, making corporate investment in Internet access easier, cheaper and more competitive. At the same time, the web was taking off, making it acceptable and expected for corporations to have their own Internet web presence and run Internet applications from every corporate desktop.
Now the "@" sign is a household word, and rattling off one's email identity in the form of firstname.lastname@example.org is commonplace. As email became more functional, it also became a more accepted means of corporate communications. Today we send invoices via email rather than fax them or send originals via postal mail. We email answers to our customers' queries, and we don't think twice about sending email to business associates around the world.
A study by the American Management Association finds more than 57% of American business executives rely on email today, and that number is sure to rise in the future. More than half of Internet users, according to another study, report having more than one email account. By the end of the twentieth century, the Electronic Mail Association predicts that more than 108 million people will be using email, receiving more than seven trillion messages annually.
All of the growth in email as an essential business and interpersonal communications tool has been, for the large part, because email is mostly a one-to-one technology: you send a single message to a single recipient. But within the past year this one-to-one nature of email has evolved into a new and compelling category called email application servers.
Why is this new category so compelling? Corporations have become more global in their reach. Many corporations need a way to communicate en masse: they want to develop a product, come to agree on how to treat a common customer or resolve a dispute. They want to enable and improve their eCommerce storefronts, enhance their web presence, extend their customer support, and improve their outbound campaign management. They want to interact with their customers, suppliers and partners and keep everyone in the loop about new projects, problems and prospects. They want to communicate more effectively but do so less expensively than they have in the past. And they want to leverage their investments in Internet technologies.
Email application servers will be the tie that binds this new breed of workers. The difference is now email applications are two-way, fully integrated into the corporate consciousness. Those workers who don't know how to make use of email servers will waste hours or lose information. And those that are content to continue with one-to-one communications will fall behind their competitors.
Let's review how email application servers are transcending one-to-one messaging. We'll examine the role played by these new products, how you can harness the power of these servers and some of the issues involved in moving towards these more interesting and advanced uses.
An appropriate email infrastructure involves several things. First off, as Bill Gates has said in his latest book, everyone needs their own email identity and the ability to find others in a corporate-wide directory. This might mean using various software gateways to connect disparate email networks. You also need to send and receive messages when on the road, which could involve securing your corporate network against potential intruders and outside abusers while allowing legitimate remote users appropriate access. Finally, you might also want to include the appropriate suppliers and customers in your corporate-wide directory.
But infrastructure isn't everything. Corporations will want to grow beyond one-to-one messaging towards more advanced email applications. These would enable multiple interactions between individuals and systems. Email application servers leverage the web and directory services that are already in place in a corporation. They assume a solid email infrastructure and extend it in ways that can range from the simple use of automated response forms to more sophisticated two-way applications among suppliers and business partners. Some of these applications automate and incorporate business practices and processes, while others build on top of existing web storefronts and customer service applications.
All three methods are partial solutions, however. An email application server can become the glue that binds together the various data repositories of an enterprise, including customer files, accounting rules, business objects, scattered personal databases and other components. The applications on these servers ensure some form of corporate memory or history for each customer, linking web, accounting, and marketing functions together as a whole. Unlike these above solutions that often arise as a single and simple fix, email applications can be extensible, flexible, and scalable as a corporation and its markets and business change. And they can be used by less skilled staff who are closer to the individual departments using this information.
Email applications are really the next step in automating the modern corporation. They bring together existing Internet applications such as web and one-to-one messaging with ways to automate customer and supplier business rules and interactions. Let's explore some of these potential applications and how email application servers fit in.
Indeed, an article in Fortune magazine last December mentions how email can become the foundation for a new industrial world order, increasing choices and competition and lowering prices. Email helps empower the customer to learn more about a company's products and services directly.
But companies building their web storefronts have many challenges. Old style methods of marketing, support, production and supply are no longer valid in the world of eCommerce. Barriers for new players on the Internet are lowered, making branding and establishing a market advantage harder. Profit margins are thin to non-existent, yet these new storefronts require huge investments in technology and highly skilled people. And the days of simple static web pages where orders are processed manually have evolved to more dynamic sites where up-to-the nanosecond inventory is displayed on the web and processed within minutes of placing the order.
Customers are changing too. Back in 1990, most of your customers probably purchased their goods by physically traveling to your store after hearing about your product in some mass media. This customer was considered part of a target segment and market. While this customer could shop around and find better prices, he or she was limited by time and distance to travel to these stores.
Today's customers are very different. They are connected to the Internet, in some cases with continuous high-speed connections. Much of the mystery of the market is gone, and indeed, consumers have too much information rather than too little these days. Customers can easily search for the best prices or products that match particular criteria. With a few mouse clicks, they can find multiple sources and storefronts. Today's Internet shopper has little patience, and the number of times a virtual shopping cart is abandoned at a web storefront is a disturbingly very high percentage.
Email applications can serve as a way to help energize your web storefront and bring new business opportunities and potential profits to selling via the web. Best eCommerce practice now dictates a series of automated email acknowledgements sent to shoppers: an initial email to indicate the order was received, and others to notify the shopper when goods are shipped and money transferred.
Email application servers can go beyond these one-way notifications and tighten the loop between customer and supplier. One business has begun to automate how it contacts customers who are late in paying their bills. A daily computer program scans the accounts receivable file and sends a polite reminder if the account is 30 days overdue. If the account is still not paid after another 30 days, the program generates a second reminder and alerts a particular accounting clerk. At any time the customer can respond to the reminder and query the amount or notify the company that the "check is in the mail". This would be logged in the database and routed to the appropriate person.
The real advantage that email brings to the web is universal notification . We've seen an explosion of such services and uses of email by a wide variety of commercial and noncommercial vendors. For example, when we shop at our favorite online bookstore Amazon.com, we set up our own account that includes our email address, along with other information such as our credit card number and shipping address. Our account can be used for outbound marketing as well. We tell Amazon, using its subscription service called "Eyes," to send us email whenever a new book matching certain criteria or from certain authors is published:
Eyes, your automated searcher, is amazing. Tell it what authors and subjects interest you, and it will track every newly released book matching your interests, author by author and subject by subject. Sign up with Eyes and we'll send you e-mail when the books you want to know about are published.
If we change our minds or grow tired of receiving these missives, we merely go back to our Accounts page and can quickly modify these settings. When was the last time a clerk from your local bookstore called you, knowing your interests and purchase history, with a recommendation? While we might object to such telemarketing calls (particularly as they usually occur at the dinner hour), email is far less intrusive.
BlueMountainArts.com has built its entire enterprise of an online greeting card company based on email notification. Customers pick out their e-greeting cards via a web form, and a short message is sent to the card's recipient with a link for them to view the card in their browser. While the notion is simple and the cards are free, the company is often among the top visited web sites. And if you are the type to forget birthdays or anniversaries, a site called RemindMe will send you email reminders a week or a day before any particular event. Other sites send daily emails telling us the closing prices of our investment portfolio, or news digests related to particular topics, or travel bargains only available to Internet users.
These examples are just the beginning of what we call the automatic enterprise -- enabling interactions 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Email application servers make possible the automatic enterprise with a complex series of interlocking steps and communications among various programs and processes.
Let's look at one example where a new employee is hired in the automatic enterprise. The hiring manager wants this employee to be productive on the first work day, and initiates a series of programs. These could include sending email to the insurance company to provide details and set up an account and when completed, another process would confirm the results that this employee was added to the plan. Yet another process would add the employee to the corporate directory and assign appropriate rights and network resources along with a welcome email sent to the employee's inbox. Finally, another process would order the appropriate computer equipment by sending a message to the approved hardware vendor. Each spoke of the wheel would respond back giving status and at any time a report would be generated either via a web page or by sending an email request as to the status of these preparations.
The trade publication Network World  took an interesting approach and assembled a short list of vendors who provide various computerized solutions to this problem. The reporter then used the address on each vendor's web site and timed how long it took before he received a response, either from a program or from a human, to his query. Interestingly, most took at least an hour to respond and one took more than 18 hours. A similar tactic for general consumer products companies was tried by Computerworld , with even more dismal results: Vendors there took anywhere from an hour to days to send a reply. Another recent survey by Jupiter Communications , shows almost half of the companies surveyed took as long as five days to respond to email queries. Clearly, there is some room for improvement here.
The notion of providing inbound support via email is still undergoing change, and there seems to be more questions than answers yet in this arena. Consider:
Who answers email that is sent to these addresses? Is it a human, a program, or some combination of the two? Do you send an immediate reply that is obviously machine-generated to confirm that you got the question and then follow up with something more thoughtful, or just route the message to the right carbon-based life form to begin with?
Do you have a single address for all inquiries, or separate addresses for different kinds of communication and departments? Do you publish the actual email addresses of key employees, say, the vice president of sales and head of investor relations? What about publishing the CEO's address?
And there are plenty of other issues. What constitutes "timely" responses to this kind of email-especially if you need to have staff available around the clock to answer questions from around the world? Most of us expect to see a reply within 24 hours of sending a message and get annoyed when it takes longer. Finally, how do you keep track of your company's performance here?
The best way to solve these problems is by using email application servers to harness the ubiquity of the Internet and the power of the web. For example, say you automatically send a survey out to a customer two weeks after the purchase of the product to determine their level of satisfaction with your store and the ordering process. Some of your customers respond back describing their problems. With an email application server, these tasks can be automated to send back to the customer an acknowledgement of their correspondence and to alert the appropriate service representative to follow up with this customer.
Email application servers get around these problems, and help you prepare targeted campaigns with interactions that allow you to better tailor an offer to the customer, or periodic surveys to gather preferences, or whole newsletters that can be customized in terms of areas of interest and delivery frequency. For example, the newsletter could indicate that we know that the customer called customer service to ask a question and include a link to a web form to report if there were any issues. These applications can incorporate the prior history with an individual to make the communications more personal and engaging. Email applications servers can leverage this central "knowledge base" and extend it in new and exciting ways.
In this brave new world of advanced email application servers, corporations will be able to deliver products better, faster, and cheaper. These servers can offer powerful programs and processes to automate common tasks, such as customer contact and purchase acknowledgments and stay in touch with your customers and suppliers. Email application servers also can increase your marketing effectiveness and customer satisfaction, as well as improve customer retention and traffic to your web storefront.
 September 22, 1997, p. 38 "Info@company.com Overload," by Paul McNamara.
 September 15, 1997, p. 96 "Operators Are Standing Down," by Steve Ulfelder.
 November 9, 1998: "Jupiter Finds 42 Percent of Web Sites Fail At Customer Service"
This paper draws on the Prentice Hall book, Internet Messaging, by Marshall T. Rose and David Strom and is used with permission.