Even as consumers shift more and more of their daily tasks and chores to the Web, one famous form of online communication is losing its luster.


E-mail, that staple of your daily work and social life, is withering from a combination of excessive spam and the onslaught of "instant" messaging services for the attention-challenged.

A survey conducted by e-mail marketing company ReturnPath claimed that of the 20 million machines it was monitoring, 96.7 percent scored poorly on the company's "reputation" score for generating spam.

The computers were mostly unprotected personal PC's that were "hijacked" by hackers and virus writers to spread spam and other malware.

Companies such as ReturnPath and Postini sell themselves as providing e-mail security for businesses, through providing "whitelists" of approved senders, blocking spam, and providing better management of e-mail lists.

But while many enterprising companies have stepped into the breach for business, consumers may be retreating from e-mail to avoid the onslaught of Viagra ads, phisher e-mails, and Nigerian scams that can sneak through even the best spam blockers.

As far back as 2004, tech pundits and analysts were noting reduced usage of personal e-mail due to security and spam concerns.

Research conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that despite the passage of the CAN-SPAM legislation in 2003, 63 percent of Internet users were "less trusting" of the Web due to spam concerns, and 29 percent had reduced their overall usage of the Internet to avoid spam.

When Pew conducted a similar survey in 2005, 28 percent of e-mail users were getting slightly more spam in their inboxes than before, but it "bothered them less." However, phishing was a new and more dangerous concern, with 35 percent of those polled saying they received an e-mail that could have potentially compromised their personal information.

Instant Marketing

Meanwhile, the rise of instant messaging services, blogs, social networking sites, and mobile text messaging has given the younger set a much quicker option to communicate than e-mail, and opened a new goldmine for wireless companies and advertisers.

Business 2.0 magazine reported that teen usage of Web-based e-mail services dropped by 8 percent in 2005, while mobile providers raked in $70 million in profit from text messaging charges.

Of course, mobile communications has its own share of demons to contend with.

Mobile content provider Jamster has been criticized and sued for spamming cellphone users with unwanted text messages when they download a ringtone or screensaver from the service.

Arizona businessman Rodney Joffe recently won a court case against a mortgage company for sending him unsolicited text messages. Joffe himself is in the business of helping companies fortify their e-mail against spam and other threats.

And MySpace may be the world's most popular Web site, but when it comes to teens, it's becoming synonymous with a danger zone. A Texas teenager is suing the site for $30 million after being sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old she met through the site.

You've Got Mail ... For Now

Much as CD's supplanted vinyl and DVD's replaced cassettes (for better or worse), we may be looking at a wave of new technologies that will eclipse e-mail as the communication standard.

E-mail is certainly in no danger of going away, but it may end up filling more of a niche function as a business communication tool, or a service geared towards older Web surfers.

Teenagers and criminals, are, ironically, two of the sharpest population segments when it comes to analyzing trends and moving on to what's hot. Spammers are already adapting tactics to move their wares from e-mail to mobile, and teens already think e-mail is, like, so lame.

But the need for instant communication isn't just limited to the younger set, as evidenced by the legions of businesspeople and influence-peddlers you see clacking away on their Blackberries on any given day.

Eventually, e-mail will join faxing and snail mail in that part of history reserved for technologies that were all the rage, but just couldn't keep up with consumers' obsessive need to stay in touch constantly.