Everything new is old again: Is e-mail on the way out as the Internet's killer app?

Social media could take the top spot

E-mail, that amazingly resilient tool that has been blamed or credited with strangling the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), has been the Internet’s killer app for 20 years. But a study of the Internet landscape in 2009 indicates that this venerable application is being overtaken by a new generation of social networking tools.

E-mail is not on the way out; its numbers continue to grow, according to the Blue Coat Web Security Report for 2009. But it is not growing nearly as quickly as Twitter and a host of other Web 2.0 collaboration tools. And along with these new tools comes a new generation of exploits to threaten them.

It is no surprise that criminals are taking advantage of new applications and services to deliver malware and extract sensitive information. What is surprising is the amount of change that has occurred in the last year, remarkable even at Internet speeds.

“Social networking was already gaining traction in 2008, but its popularity exploded in 2009,” the Blue Coat report said. “Blue Coat Labs saw an increase of over 500 percent in the frequency with which people accessed social networking sites during 2009.”

The report cited a Nielsen Co. study showing that 277 million people used e-mail across the United States, Europe, Brazil and Australia in August 2009, a 21 percent increase from the year before. But the number of users on social networking and other community sites jumped 31 percent to 302 million. Social networking increasingly is being used in place of e-mail as a medium for both personal and professional communication and collaboration. Twitter, relatively unknown in 2008, jumped from 2.5 million tweets a day in January 2009 to more than 30 million a day by the end of the year.

These changes, along with an economic recession, have been blamed by USPS for a 13 percent decline in mail volume in fiscal 2009, which cost the USPS nearly $7 billion in revenue. “Electronic media have replaced the letter as the primary means of social and business communication,” USPS said in explaining a money-saving proposal that would limit mail delivery to five days a week. “Revenue from First-Class Mail — the Postal Service’s longtime bread-and-butter product — continues to decline as the use of electronic message delivery increases.”

These shifts are bad news not only for the nation’s mail carriers, but also for eager adopters of the latest tools.

“Twitter’s popularity brought it to the attention of cyber criminal organizations, which found several ways to manipulate the service into distributing malware and phishing links with enticing, socially engineered messages,” Blue Coat reported.

The number and power of devices that can access the Internet is growing rapidly, and the number of applications being created for them is growing even more quickly. Too quickly for any meaningful quality assurance or security.

“The app market as a whole, which is still emerging and largely unregulated, is fertile ground for criminal activity,” Blue Coat reported. “For instance, malicious apps disguised as gaming apps have already hit the market. What’s worse, many companies sell untested apps in their online stores, leading customers to believe these products are reliable and legitimate.”

The result is a strange new world in which devices and applications are moving into our daily lives and into the enterprise at a speed that is leaving network administrators and security experts farther and farther behind. The solution? Caution. Just because everyone is tweeting does not mean that Twitter should be an information channel for your organization -- at least not yet. And be careful about what those tweeters are bringing into your enterprise on their new handheld devices.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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