Global Trends in E-Mail
Venkatesh Hariharan - Financial Express Bombay, Wednesday, September 14, 1994

One of the most noteworthy features of the fax revolution was the amazingly brief time it took to launch itself from the R&D labs into millions of offices worldwide. Withing a span of five years, the technology had outdated telex, making it look like a tattered cousin.

Since then, communications technology has moved so fast that a bare half-decade later, fax too has to contend with a competitor that threatens to put it in the shade - E-Mail.

If fax's advantage was that it could transmit diagrams, pir charts and other graphics, E-Mail promises to deliver even audio-visual images, apart from voice and data. One day soon, you may be able to just enter the name of your favorite movie on the computer and view it immediately on your TV.

E-Mail is a natural outcome to the growth of computers. Anil Garg, Vice President (Technology), Business Indian Information Technology (BIIT), says, "Once you had a number of computers, the next logical extension was to make them talk to one other".

Unlike telex or fax, E-Mail enables communications to be made truly paperless because information in transmitted, received and stored in the binary format that compters use.

In India, this market is still in its embryonic state, though the potential is huge. Industry estimates indicate that, even at a conservative rate, the market for E-Mail services should touch Rs 500 crore by the year 1998-99. In the US, sales of such online services topped $ 10 bn in 1992 and are expected to touch $ 15 bn in 1997.

Explosive Popularity

Across the world, an estimated 20 million people use E-Mail services and this number is expected to go up to an incredible 100 million in five years! Another indicator of the popularity is the fact that the Internet, a network of networks which use a standard way of addressing and sending data, has grown faster than any telecom network ever built in history.

It doubles in size every year and at the last count there were two million connections and approximately 20 million users. There are several reasons why E-Mail enjoys such explosive popularity.

Apart from the fact that it is far cheaper to send messages over E-Mail, there is also the advantage that it is not a one-way method of communication. As Suchit Nanda, Chief Executive, Online BBS Services, says, "With E-Mail, you can query the system and access gigabytes of information stored in databases or use electronic bulletin board services (BBSs). Besides, E-Mail is time - and space - independent."

This means that a user in New York or Hong Kong can access the messages received at his E-Mail address in Bombay, by simply tapping into the computer. Adds Nanda, "I can also send my messages at any time of my choice, regardless of the time at the destination." The other benefits are that the messages do not get lost and confidentiality is ensured through data encryption.

The fact that the information is available in binary form also makes data acquisition, transfer and analysis much more easier. For instance, around 40 per cent of the users of OnlineBBS regularly download stock market updates which is available in .dbf format.

The amount of databases that can be accessed through E-Mail is immense. Since these databases are computerised, searching for a very specific information - a process akin to searching for a needle in a haystack - becomes easier.

In the case of serious researchers like doctors etc., this is an extremely useful feature because the relevant information is available instantly. Unlike the fax or telephone, which are one-to-one contact media, E-Mail can be used to contact thousands of people merely by pressing a few keys.

A user can, for example, use a bulleting board service to, say, conduct a survey on "how many males think women are poor drivers?" and mail it to groups as diverse as Racing Car Driver's Association, Vintage Car Association and Western India Automobile Association, and receive thousands of replies.

The experience of users all over the world has been that once they start using E-Mail, it rapidly becomes indispensable. This is because it is in tune with what a person does.

Users can send an E-Mail message, or access a database right form their computer terminal. The results are also immediate and tangible because it is almost 10 times cheaper than fax. Says Nanda, "It is easy to sell the concept of E-Mail because the customer has the basic PC. Now, all that he requires is the E-Mail software."

The initial investment required for the service is also quite small. OnlineBBS charges a one-time fee of Rs 200 and an annual fee of Rs 2,000; BIIT charges Rs 1,500 and Rs 1,200; and VSNL charges Rs 1,000 and Rs 3,000. The messages are charges on a per-use basis by all these services. Among the three, only VSNL ask for 'connect time' charges for the amount of time the user accesses the service.

The US president, Bill Clinton and vice-president Al Gore are active proponents of information superhighways which will enable transfer of vast amount of data in binary, voice or audio visual formats via E-Mail. These highways built of optic fibres will to a great extent determine the competitiveness of nations.

Japan, for instance, is committed to building a fibre network by the year 2015 and beleives that the resultant productivity gains will boost its GNP by 30 per cent. Singapore, France and Germany are also fast cathcing up. These examples merely serve to underline the enormous imortance of E-Mail, specially in the coming multimedia age.

Indian Scenario

Though, today there are only a few thousand users of E-Mail, Garg of BIIT feels that the present market size is not an indicator of the actual potential. At present, Icnet, UUNet, Axcess, Gems 400 (VSNL) and ERNet are the operating E-Mail services in India.

Datapro, DART, the R P Goenka Group and Wipro are others who are planning to set up their own online services. Considering the benefits of E-Mail, its success seems to be a foregone conclusion.

Rajeev Arora, Chairman, Datapro, feels that even at a conservative estimate, the potential revenue for his XeeMail will be around Rs 50 crore within the next five years. He feels that the climate for E-Mail is fertile and says that, "people at the highest levels are receptive to the concept," a view corroborated by Garg.

As far as the pricing for these services goes, Arora advocates a completely decontrolled atmosphere. "In a free economy, the rates should not be controlled." He also suggests that E-Mail operators should be given the freedom to add cities to their operations. "This is an enabling technology and therefore the government should do the maximum possible to encourage its growth," says Arora.

With the government according a higher priority to telecommunication services, albiet a few policy irritants which still block its free flow, prospects for E-Mail are certainly bright. Globally too, the trend toward E-Mail has been very strong, so much so that, in the US, ordinary post has been redesignated SnailMail!