Doomsayers of email are not newer species. Tech journalists have predicted death of the email as the primary communication channel time and again.
None has succeeded so far. In fact, email has been cited as the #1 engagement tool as far as digital product marketing is concerned. Proponents of Slack also agree that messengers are not well suited to each and every type of internal communication.
That’s not because technical superiority of email protocol above other messaging protocols.
That’s also not because the relative ease of use of email clients over other messenger apps. (in fact, it’s the other way around)
It’s because of how email is ingrained into millennium software.
Email is like telephony of the 90s:
At the time of Internet inception around 60s, telephony was the only widespread physical media that data could travel on.
With the fresh explosion of websites in the 90s, businesses could already feel the limitations of wired telephony.
This lead to immense research on wireless (WiFi, Bluetooth and Carrier protocols), which eventually lead to mobile revolution in 00s.
Today, 5G is just around and billionaire biggies are wagging their tongues at users that will be glued to their apps 24 x 7 - using data packages cheaper than Sahara dirt.
In the 90s (times of Yahoo and Amazon), when fresh websites were digitizing the core businesses (retail, messaging, content-delivery), they needed something that will serve as user identity.
Address and telephone numbers were the natural choices.
Yet, that something had to be frictionless enough to push people to use newer ways of shop, consume content, communicate with others and so on.
Addresses and telephone numbers didn’t qualify, due to their verifiability problems. Emails did.
On the other hand, duplicate emails (fake users) weren’t encouraged, but nobody knew that will be a problem.
The reality is:
They secretly wished it would one day spiral out of their control. And it did.
Having sole legal requirement of email as the user identity had a fabulous name: ease of doing business. So governments embraced it with open arms.
Hence, email became de-facto identity mechanism of the web.
The email convenience has been over-exploited:
Everyone can have multiple email accounts that bear no / non-cohesive relation to their true identities
This fact was largely overlooked in the 90s because businesses really needed users to flock to their websites. They wanted it to be frictionless.
This is in complete contrast with the world today, where:
Users are no longer a commodity; Customers are.
While total number of Internet users is still hovering around 50% of the world population (4.1 billion), average Internet user holds roughly 2 email accounts as of end of 2018.
- Fake news that could topple governments and engineer elections
- Fake reviews that could make or break businesses — so much so that small businesses are willing to pay to 3rd parties to remove negative reviews.
In fact, the latter is so much of a nagging problem (which is rarely spoken about) that time is ripe for a marketplace (read Amazon competitor) that could eliminate disproportionate amount of influence customer reviews hold over retail.
Reviews had an enormous impact historically:
Amazon reviews were crucial in making consumers trust a completely stranger seller party.
Google reviews were crucial in making customers explore great restaurants / shops nearby that would potentially pay Google for better discoverability.
Since reviews were important, they were encouraged. Because of their enormous influence, reviews grew in an enormously duplicitous manner.
They became nuisance.
Case for AI to remove fake reviews:
Fighting fake reviews / news by having 3rd party / in-house AI applications isn’t going to fix the problem.
Firstly, smartest AI tool will be dumb in deciding fake vs real. Secondly, it will be a consumer experience nightmare to remove already posted review data.
The workflow has to be more complex and user-interactive than that.
New privacy laws will require that marketplaces will require consent from even potentially fake accounts to perform the weeding out job.
The other elephant in the room is subjectivity.
- A customer having one subjective (competitor / begrudged) review as cited by AI maybe an objective poster for 1349 other reviews posted.
- A newbie seller who got seven 1 * reviews out of 10 total reviews may just have had 3 bad deliveries + 4 subjective (competitors) reviews.
Solution has to be robust identity based framework that could eliminate fakeness from the system, instead of fake content-owners.
A new identity that identifies a person, not an account:
Governments are already using non-email systems to uniquely identify its citizens to prevent misuse of its resources.
However these identities are restricted to nation states, and does not identify customers that are situated across borders.
For example, a Japanese customer trying to buy an item from Amazon.com to ship to a friend in UK still has to rely on his email to log into Amazon.com. His Japanese ID cannot be of any help.
This was perfectly normal use case of global retail.
Every user of an online marketplace has to identify himself / herself using a unique identity that is not email.
This unique identifier is not unlike a bitcoin wallet address.
Most importantly, this identifier remains same for a person across all online participating marketplaces i.e. Amazon, Google, Facebook et al.
Unique ID != User AccountEmail = User Account within any of service providers (Amazon et al)Unique ID = User (may have multiple accounts)
While generating this unique identifier, a system has to take into account personal features that transcends user’s identity beyond location, nationality or organization.
A fingerprint has proven to be quite effective mechanism employed by stalwarts of mobile security. It can be used to to generate this unique user identifier.
An interesting parallel to draw is how OpenID provides authentication to systems using OpenID authentication providers. That familiar set of buttons that says ‘Login via Google, Facebook or Github.’
A new startup website can implement Google / Facebook / Github based authentication in their app to avoid maintaining user credentials management.
Proposed system simply takes this concept at another level: Unique ID based authentication will enforce even those OpenID authentication providers to rely upon fingerprints, thus completely eliminating the the email based authentication.
World governments can additionally wield their powers to make mammoth marketplaces enforce this mechanism.
The Execution (where the billion dollar startup steps in):
The devil is in the details.
The requirement is:
Service providers (mentioned as online marketplaces above) need to inject into their workflow the compulsory registration of unique identifier by user. Users include consumers, suppliers, third party and even government actors.
In case of business entities, multiple individuals can authenticate an entity (singularly or in unison, based on usage authority).
The action is:
This injection is what the startup sells.
While this seems some unsettling experience for consumers, if done correctly and simultaneously across all big systems including Google, Facebook, Amazon et al, it could be one-time breeze experience (unlike that disturbing yet necessary privacy-consent popup)
MbQeThWmZq4t7w9z in the above example is not exactly a crypto wallet address for the sake of brevity. It is John Doe’s universal address across Amazon, Google and Facebook (although he may continue to login using any of his emails)
Next step is to perform consolidation of multiple accounts. This is where the data migration comes into picture. Each service provider’s user database has to accommodate the unique identifier and email records that share the same identifier have to be consolidated under one “world citizen” account.
It is technical challenge on part of this startup to provide necessary migration toolset for each service provider. Better, it should be database model agnostic.
It maybe technically difficult to build, but with enough scripting surrounding database metadata, if a solution could be built that is generic enough for Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple — it could work for everyone else in the cybersphere.
How to ensure generic nature of the solution:
By setting up a consortium that will include experts from all huge service providers impacted. Something like USB.org.
Earlier, they required users.
Now, since they are on the verge of losing credibility, they want a solution that will externally establish some order into their chaotic world.
At the same time, they cannot fight it by gathering more data — privacy already being cost prohibitive for biggies. For smaller players, more data (phone numbers, which are anyway counting their days) always means more bandwidth, which equates to cash burn.
In essence, big players will be more than ready to provide huge investments to a technically competent solution.
Once having acquired critical mass, it is always easy to benefit from economies of scale.
But wouldn’t Big Players do it? A Startup won’t stand a chance.
If they wanted to do it, they would have done it already.
They are paying hefty amounts to lawyers in fighting governments and customers.
Size brings inertia.
Imagine a startup delivering to all big players including Amazon, Google, Apple, Alibaba, & Facebook.
It wouldn’t be less fun to watch. ☺️
With identity problem sorted out, the dataset available to marketplaces becomes enormously huge.
A user having 7 bad reviews posted on Amazon cannot be penalized, but if he is found to have posted 1013 bad reviews posted on eBay, he could be marked as negative review poster, and sellers could be exempted from penalization by his reviews.
Subjectivity of the review is also something where AI / blockchain could help. And since they both would now have gigantic dataset available to work upon, it will be much more effective in separating wheat from the chaff.
In a similar manner, trustworthy reviewers could be rewarded by sellers pre or post sales to boost branding and engagement ROI.
This will ultimately benefit consumers as well as suppliers that suffer from badly designed marketplace algorithms.
Since marketplaces are wasting billions in litigations, it will be more than welcome step for them too, for they get the actual medicine for the prescriptions handed out by governments.
Email, as a messaging tool, has still many years and innovations left for the world. It will probably live forever.
But email, as an identity mark, has lived its life already.
If you wonder about the scale of migrations needed, remember how much Y2K scared us, and we are still living happily ever after.