Safe, sane alternatives to e-mail

If your e-mail account has turned into a time-sink, consider communicating with coworkers, associates, friends, and family via text messages, voice-to-text, and other services that avoid going through a traditional inbox.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read

E-mail is the greatest office productivity booster since the invention of the telephone. E-mail is the biggest waste of work time since the invention of the coffee maker.

Lately, I've been leaning toward the latter proposition. I calculate that only one in five of the messages that make it through Gmail's spam filter into my inbox are worth the time it takes to open and read them.

This doesn't include the spam Gmail automatically identifies and blocks, which in recent years has dropped from more than 90 percent of all the messages sent to just over 70 percent, according to Symantec.

That's still a lot of junk clogging the Net-o-sphere and extending our workdays unnecessarily. Here's how to spend more time communicating and less time wrestling with your e-mail account.

Easy voice-to-e-mail transcriptions via Google Voice
The two most obvious alternatives to e-mail are the old, reliable telephone and the not-as-old, not-as-reliable instant message. Phone calls and IMs don't provide the semi-permanent record that e-mail threads offer, although most leading chat services and IM aggregators such as the free, open-source Adium chat client let you maintain a log of your chats.

Facebook Messages and Google Chat let you view (and delete) your message history. Twitter Direct Message currently saves your last 100 messages sent and received via that service, according to the Twitter Help Center.

Nuance's Dragon Dictation app for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch allows you to record a voice message and convert it to text that you can send via e-mail. (Similar products are available from the company for Android and BlackBerry phones.)

You can do the same voice-to-e-mail conversion from any phone by calling your Google Voice number. The service automatically transcribes your voice message and then lets you e-mail the transcription. After you leave the message to yourself, open your Google Voice account, click More at the bottom of the message, and choose Email.

Google Voice message transcription options
E-mail a voice recording by leaving a message on your Google Voice account and then choosing More > Email in the message's text transcription. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

By default, the e-mailed transcription will include a canned message about the recording and transcript as well as a link to the original voice recording. To send only the transcription, enter the recipient's e-mail address, uncheck the include-a-link option at the bottom of the send window, and select and delete the canned message.

Google Voice e-mail popup window
E-mail only the Google Voice message transcription by unchecking the "send link" option and selecting and deleting the canned message. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

The quality of Google Voice's transcription engine is hit-and-miss, but most are at least intelligible (if sometimes humorous). While you wouldn't necessarily want to send such a transcription to a potential client or employer, the voice-to-text conversion is suitable for most everyday communications.

Short-message services aren't worth the effort
The longer the e-mail message, the less likely the recipient will actually read it. The Shortmail service limits messages to 500 characters, which is more than three times Twitter's length limit but still pretty meager, especially for verbose e-mailers such as yours truly.

My beef with the service is not the message-length limit but the requirement that you use yet-another e-mail address, this one with the "shortmail.com" URL. You can use your Twitter username and sign in to the service with your Twitter credentials, which automatically imports your Twitter contacts. You can also import contacts from other Web services.

A suite of services named two.sentenc.es, three.sentenc.es, four.sentenc.es, and five.sentenc.es takes a subtle approach to encourage e-mail brevity. The sites ask you to voluntarily limit your messages to that number of sentences and to paste a link to the sites to explain the sentence limit and request that your recipients adopt the length limit.

I'm inclined to let e-mail writers go on as long as they want knowing that I'll read as much of their message as I find useful or interesting and skip over the rest. Likewise, the people I e-mail are free to ignore some or all of my message. It's not like we're getting charged by the word (at least not yet).

Isolate your organization's internal messages
As I mentioned above, Facebook, Twitter, and other popular social networks let you send messages to individual friends and followers. A primary advantage of social-network messaging is the convenience of contacting someone without having to sign in to another service or, if you're already signed in, having to jump between browser windows. A primary disadvantage is having your messages stored in several different places.

That's not as big a problem for people within an organization, however. A friend who works for a popular Web restaurant-reservation service recently bragged that the inbox for his company e-mail account is nearly empty. That's because the service recently switched to an "enterprise social network" for all its internal communications.

Two of the most popular such services are Yammer and Salesforce.com's Chatter. Both services use the organization's own URL and come in free and fee-based versions. Both also promise to go beyond simple messaging to make it easier to tap into your company's collective brainpower.

As with any new service that promises to boost your group's productivity, the key is getting people to use it. For many workers, anything that will reduce the amount of time they spend clearing the detritus out of their inbox will be worth giving a try.

It seems a day doesn't go by without the introduction of a new way to reach people--singly or in groups--as well as to share files, coordinate projects, and post to blogs, among other activities. Nothing has come along yet that does it all the way e-mail does. Someday e-mail will go the way of the quill pen, but not yet. Until then, we'll keep looking for ways to ensure that the technology works for us, not against us.