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AOL should look beyond its inefficient e-mail program

May 27, 2001

Bill Gates has a saying that folks at Microsoft "eat our own dog food" - meaning employees actually use the technology they are developing.

This makes a lot of sense. If the average Microsofty has trouble using a certain program, then forget about it for the rest of us. So for a company such as Microsoft to standardize on its own software helps to move the process along.

But what happens when it goes in the other direction? According to a recent report, AOL Time Warner is moving its corporate e-mail program over to America Online's somewhat rudimentary system. This can't be true, can it?

Why would a major communications company that depends on the management of information sacrifice an entire level of efficiency in favor of smiley faces and the somewhat-ungrammatical "You've got mail"? Imagine how irritating this would become in the CNN newsroom, where each reporter gets a message every few minutes.

This may be nitpicky, as it is easy to suppress the audible message. But it's not so easy to graft intelligence onto AOL's rudimentary mail client. Searching messages and maintaining folders are only two important abilities that it lacks.

Consider the aggregate loss of efficiency felt by hundreds of thousands of employees who can't find their messages.

Ever diligent, I called an acquaintance at the company who works for one of the music divisions. "I haven't heard anything about this," he said. Would it matter? "Not really. AOL works fine at home."

Could it be that many e-mail users won't care and that by the time it trickles down to every corner of the huge company, the AOL mail client may have improved enough to the point where it is usable? Perhaps.

But any AOL Time Warner attempt to enforce this idea will do well to carry the dog-food analogy to its logical conclusion: No dog in the world will stand for kibble when it can cross the street and eat steak.

E-mail saves the world: E-mail is responsible for all kinds of modern peacemaking efforts, and you can bet it will play a big part in solving the next global crisis. In the meantime, we are reassured by a recent report in People magazine: The recently reunited Go-Go's said they never would have buried their previous differences if not for e-mail and its ability to solve problems in a logical, dispassionate way.

Depending on your perspective, this is either another example of how technology saved culture or an argument for spending less time online.

Charles Bermant, who writes the weekly In-box column, is co-author of "Effective Executive's Guide to Outlook 2002," from Redmond Technical Press.

Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company


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