What's going to happen to digital communication over the next five years? Will we still be weeding out unimportant messages and fishing through enormous email chains trying to find one pesky link to a business plan? Will we still battle to get to inbox zero?

I sure hope not.

I'm predicting that a new communication channel will replace email by 2020. In fact, there are already signs that business is starting to move away from email as a primary form of digital communication. We have so many alternatives. You can send a text message or a DM on Twitter. You can drop someone a note on Facebook or start a chat.

In my own workday, email has become less and less important. There are entire groups of people (public relations, for one) who contact me primarily on social networks first. Friends never send email anymore. They almost always send a text or chat on Facebook. Even a few of my colleagues tend to use apps like Campfire more than email.

Many companies are starting to use tools like Slack to create group discussions and relying much less on email. There are a few important reasons for this. One is that Slack creates a public archive of discussions which is easily searchable. Everyone sees what you are talking about and can add comments. Another reason is simple overload. There are too many portals and not enough good communication. Slack is one good attempt to try and gather business intelligence into one private portal.

Meanwhile, email has become a black hole. People don't respond--or they take forever to respond (which is sort of the same thing). A discussion starts nesting into multiple threads with multiple people and no one can make any sense of it anymore. Spam filters become overly aggressive. We spend hours per week trying to get rid of unimportant messages. By 2020, someone will have figured out how to make digital communication much more efficient. We don't have the answer yet, but it's clear that many people don't even use email outside of work. If you are under 20, it's possible you don't even have a personal email account at all, or, if you do, you rarely check it.

It's hard to imagine right now. We tend to think the technology we have today--the apps and services we rely on so heavily--will always stick around. The social network of today will be the social network of tomorrow. But that's never true. Technology evolves. People create new services. In 2010, apps like SnapChat (for photo messaging) and Meerkat (for live video streaming) didn't even exist.

Five years is a long time in technology, and yet it is not that long at all. In 2010, we had easy access to the high-speed internet, cars had some of the same emerging safety tech they have now, like collision mitigation braking, and smartphones were common. (It's easy to forget the iPhone was released way back in 2007 and Android debuted in 2008.)

Yet, in just five years, social networking has hit the roof. Facebook has quadrupled in value. In 2010, Twitter users sent only about 50 million tweets per day. They now send over 500 million. In terms of car technology, just five years ago, the idea of a car driving itself on the highway was a distant dream. Tesla will probably make it a reality this summer. And no one expected virtual reality to make such a splash in 2015, but it is quickly becoming a legitimate market segment.

Maybe digital messaging will morph into something brand new. I'd love a tool that knows, monitors, understands, and archives the digital communication methods I use automatically. It could be a one-stop shop for all messaging, including texts, chats, social nets...everything. Today, that's not really possible because it is all so fragmented. Heck, Facebook chats alone are held in a digital jail cell. And my texts are all entirely self-contained.

Email has mostly worn out its welcome. By 2020, it won't be the primary form of communication anymore. I can't say what will replace it because I don't think the idea has been invented yet. (Slack is too self-contained, although maybe the company will use some of their investment money to tackle that problem, too.) We won't even bother putting an email address on a business card. Come to think of it, hopefully those won't exist, either.

Published on: Apr 16, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.