Steer Clear of the e-Maelstrom

Doing things by e-mail is like driving down the middle of the road: it’s the easiest path to find and follow, but also by far the most dangerous.

Yes, everyone has e-mail; yes, pretty much any kind of content can be exchanged by that means. It’s better than instant messaging, from the viewpoint of providing an audit trail, but that’s about the only nice thing I can say about it.

The open-ended model of attaching arbitrary files makes e-mail an e-mule: like an innocent idiot tricked into carrying drugs, an e-mail message can deliver an arbitrarily complex and hazardous payload. Spreadsheet files, it appears, are the latest means of concealing pump-and-dump stock-trading spam to prevent detection by simple e-mail filters.

Meanwhile, anything but a trivial one-to-one transaction quickly becomes unwieldy when managed as an email thread — even while e-mail’s notorious insecurities persist. But if I’m going to be so critical, I’d better have something better to propose — and I do, in the form of facilities like the Intelligent Workflow features of’s Summer ’07 release.

Well-defined and largely automated workflows, replacing today’s tangled skeins of inconsistently formatted and oft-delayed emails, are a model that developers can use to conceive and design new applications. One partner sees the Summer ’07 release as a step toward capability "robust enough that it could replace a J2EE server"; it’s not that J2EE doesn’t have more total capability, but that the API makes relevant tasks much easier to do consistently and correctly.

Choosing a roll-your-own development platform, which lets you do anything but relies on you to think of everything, is like choosing a kayak for an ocean crossing because it has the maneuverability to get you out of the biggest imaginable whirlpool. Here’s an idea: plan a course that stays away from the whirlpools, and choose a vessel that carries a more profitable load.

July 31, 2007