The king is dead, long live the king.

Recently, when I wrote about how email as we know it will become obsolete by 2020, several readers took issue with the prediction, arguing that email might change but we will still rely on it as a primary form of digital communication. (That said, many people agreed that they want email to die and for something else to replace it. They are pretty sick of processing email ad-infinitum and constantly weeding out superfluous messages.)

One of the valid criticisms for my piece was that I didn't offer a thorough enough description of an app that will replace email. It's a tough one because I firmly believe this app (or service, or this collection of services, or even this more public social network) has not been invented yet. I certainly like tools like Slack, but my prediction is more about using a tool that does things we can't even quite imagine yet.

However, I do have a few ideas. You could have guessed that, right?

Here's a description of what I think could replace email in the year 2020. Feel free to point me to tools that already have some of these features and already exist today, but I have yet to find anything that really comes even close to bundling these all into one useful app.

1. Machine learning that actually works

At the core of this digital communication tool of 2020 is a much more advanced form of machine learning. I'm not talking about an app that understands what is in a message and puts it into the correct bin, which is something that has existed for a while. I want this app to know my preferences and to parse my digital life for me. It should be able to determine what is important on social networks, it should be able to read my text messages and it should be able to handle outdated modes of communication which, by then, would include Gmail. The AI should be so advanced it only delivers the messages I care about from the platforms I use at the times when I want the messages in the format I prefer.

2. Sharing that goes beyond collaboration

One of my main issues with email today is that it is an island unto itself. That's a good thing for security; for team-based collaboration, it's not as helpful. When Margaret in accounting sends me an email, it disappears into an eternal void of digital chaos. (I realize there are email features that can track when someone opens a message, but that's not quite the same thing.) I'd like to use an app that has both ultra high-end security and good collaboration. But not just collaboration on internal messaging. If someone sends me a Twitter direct message, we can discuss it from within this app. If someone chats with me in Facebook, it's all here--authenticated by Facebook, of course. When I remember that a guy named Bruce sent me that one tweet or we chatted on Google Hangouts or he emailed me, I can just type "bruce" and see what he said. It's all there.

3. My messaging avatar is not just a vague concept

I hesitate to use the word "avatar"--especially for those of you who hate the movie or think of the online world Second Life. The word is dated and overused; the concept is not. This digital communication app should be my one avatar in the world, my point of contact for every form of messaging. If you want to get in touch with John Brandon in the digital realm, you'd have one avatar point-of-contact. There wouldn't be an @ symbol involved. That's too limited, because text messages don't use that symbol, and neither do Twitter and Facebook (unless you have a Facebook email address, which is seriously confusing and not that useful). I believe Internet technologies like OAuth will adapt by 2020 and this idea of avatar-like messaging could exist.

And that's just a basic idea. Essentially, it is a replacement for a system of messaging that was invented in 1971. Time for a fresh take. What do you think?

Published on: Apr 22, 2015