July 1, 2013

Communicating while working - Message in a bottle... kind of

Hi fellow architects and other readers,

Over the coming period I will make an effort to post weekly an article on communication in the digital realm and its implication on architecture and the role of an architect. The articles will be diverse in terms of tone, topic and angle. This was my intention at the time I wrote the first article in a series on January 17th, 2013. This has been weeks, well months, ago and this is only the second installment of a multi-post item on communication. Shame on me.

Last time I have been discussing my experiences with online chatting from a personal level. It was a historic overview of me using various programs and media to digitally stay in touch with friends and family.

This time I'm taking it into the office and will discuss the the digital means of communication in the workspace. I talked about VoIP last time as for the consumer it was revolutionary, but in this post I will not touch upon it at all as VoIP in the office is a mere technology to have a phone system in place. Although digital, it is still the traditional way. (Leave your opinions in the comments because there's a lot to say about VoIP in the office not being just a traditional means of communication like the regular phone).

Ever since I was first connected to a computer network, there has been a form of email system. The digital equivalent of a regular letter. Back in the late eighties early nineties these were proprietary systems, confined to the network you were on. Although there was an open system implemented on UNIX and we used it in university.

Email has been around forever and it is the primary means of communication between people in the digital realm, well in most cases. Email is the predominant identification of a person on the Internet, it is reasonable to state that everybody with an Internet connection has at least one email address. Many, like myself have multiple addresses. Email is faster than postal mail so it is very convenient to most people. With the advent of broadband, emails have become richer in content as well, and the Internet email protocols have been adopted by all email systems and there are hardly any proprietary systems in use any more, but for very specific situations. Most of these are dealing with specific security circumstances. Email is not secure by any means, it is arguably significantly less secure than regular mail as the email can be opened and read by anybody with sender and receiver ever being aware of this. This is hard to accomplish with an "analog" letter as you would notice the envelope being opened when you receive the letter.

This security aspect of email has been a concern for many, especially companies that deal with confidential data are extremely aware of this.

Another important security issue is that it is very simple to send an email pretending to be somebody else.Since the email protocol works on clear text, anybody that can intercept an email can change the email before sending it along its way. And since the premise of the internet is that it is a highly redundant network that can withstand a nuclear attack, anybody can sit in between any two parties that send an email. But more importantly, the internet is a mesh network of point-to-point connections. It's a graph where every connected computer is a node. The connections are know because every node has an address, its IP. And these IP's are structured in a hierarchy.
On top of that, pretty much all connections are wired connections, because these are reasonably reliable and cheap as well. This also means that continents are connected by, literally, just a few wires. Put your computer on one of these wires and you're in the middle of all continental communications. Including email. Although very simplified, this is actually scary accurate.
So it's easy to pretend you're somebody else when sending an email. Just as simple as to write another name at the bottom of a letter. And the solution to prevent this is analogous to the analog letter; Signing the letter with a signature that is hard to fake. And here's another analogy with the analog world, how do you know what signature belongs to whom? In the physical world, this is handled by big books with names and signatures and when you get a letter that's signed, you open the book and compare signatures. And this is not a joke, this is how it's done. And in the digital world, we do the same. We have digital books (registries) with the names and the digital signatures that belong to these names and this is how we validate the authenticity of a signature. It's that simple... and really complicated. Because bits are only of the value 0 or 1 and therefore very easy to recreate. Do it in the right order and you can make a perfect copy of a signature. So we've got all kinds of mathematical schemes to ensure that it is as hard as possible to recreate the order in which the bits are written. And we distribute the signatures using a key infrastructure.
The tricky part of this is that you need to trust the person sending you his signature to be the person he claims to be based on the signature. Consequently this is not a solution to be used on a large scale where nobody knows anybody.

The key with email is, that its use and its validity is completely based on trust. But there is always plausible denial as an option for the "sender" when he inadvertently sends an email he never wanted to send in first place.

By the way, this previous part of this post is about half of what non-repudiation is all about. You just can't get non-repudiation without diverting to a small group of people you want to exchange emails with that should not be able to deny to have ever send an email.
The other half, denying you ever received and opened an email is the other half. This is like registered email (delivery receipt) with or without a signed receipt. Typically only enterprise grade products like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange to name the two biggest email systems for the corporate have the option to automatically reply to the sender that the email was delivered to the recipient's inbox and again when the email was openen. Systems like Hotmail and GMail don't support this. So it's of little use to be honest in today's email eco-system.

But there's still a valid use of email in the enterprise. It's one of the most efficient ways to inform large groups of people about something that concerns them all. Because everybody is familiar with emails, it's adoption as a means to convey a message is massive. The analogy with mail helps of course.
The ability to add attachments to an email is of course also of huge benefit. One can send a large document or documents, which could be anything ranging from a text file to pictures or schematics or videos or music tracks, as an attachment where the email body is just an introduction to the real goodies in the attachment.

The problem with email is actually its wide adoption and its low threshold usability. Resulting in spam, unsolicited marketing garbage that clutters the corporate email inboxes with irrelevant emails that prevent people from doing their jobs. And then there are all the jokes and department party pics that keep people away from their work as well. Due to the little effort it takes to write an email to somebody, it's asynchronous nature, the improper use of any means to make an email more urgent, to raise its importance has caused over the last 5 years or so a transition of the enterprise from email based communications to something else.
Many enterprises are still searching for a good replacement. With a lack of alternatives to email that have all the good stuff and none of the bad stuff, email is still the prime means of collaboration in enterprises.

In the late nineties I was working at companies of all sizes where their email systems were limited to the extend of the enterprise and then there was the personal email. With systems like Compuserv and MSN (both were at that time a proprietary alternative to the web) one could send emails to other users outside your own organization. This changed when the internet-bubble started to grow around 1999. Hotmail was the big advocate for internet based email and with websites popping up like corn grains in a popcorn machine wanting to send you information, email grew rapidly and enterprises started to understand the importance of email to communicate with possible customers.
Interestingly enough, email turned into the most prominent and important way to communicate with the rest of the world along side with websites, but internally neither the intranet nor the corporate email systems took over this role from internal circulations, flyers handed at the door and the surprise brochures you stumbled upon in the morning when getting at your desk. For some reason we still don't see email as a viable means to communicate internal stuff and we still rely on the hard copy of the same message.
I noted myself that I am more likely to read a piece of paper left at my desk the night before than an email containing the same information left in my inbox around the same time. The reason behind this I don't know. The piece of paper is more intrusive, no question about it. It's typically placed on my keyboard so it prevents me from doing my work. The email in my inbox is easily ignored. It just sits there being unread. Maybe this is why I read the piece of paper, I have to pick it up and put it somewhere else before I can do my job. But still I can move it aside without reading it. So I guess it's more a matter of habit, a piece of paper is to be read. This is what I was brought up with. Books, papers, magazines, flyers, brochures, pamphlets. They are all pieces of papers with words on them, picked up by me to be read. I have to read it, it's the natural course of things. Email is not like that. I am more likely to think an email is too long to be read than a double sided printed memo about the same.

Based on this, I don't think that email will ever be as effective as paper. Not in the corporate, not to inform people. Yes you can use it very effectively to get your point across, but nothing more than your point. We, the working people, are not yet ready to use an all digital format to inform each other. We're still too analog. And when we're ready, email will not be that format. Why? Because it's too much like mail without an 'e'. What that other format will be? Intranet, document management systems, social media for the enterprise, chat programs? Well, I'll venture into those areas in the next installments of my blog, and I seriously will make it an effort to not wait this long again for my next post.

Untill my next post...


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