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Escaping email: Inspired vision or hallucination?

Thursday - 7/31/2014, 4:10am  ET

In this photo taken Thursday, April 3, 2014, Asana co-founders Justin Rosenstein, center, and Dustin Moskovitz, right, pose for photos at the company's headquarters in San Francisco. Asana peddles software that combines the elements of a communal notebook, social network, instant messaging application and online calendar to enable teams of employees to share information and do most of their jobs without relying on email. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

MICHAEL LIEDTKE
AP Technology Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Dustin Moskovitz is plotting an escape from email.

The 30-year-old entrepreneur has learned a lot about communication since he teamed up with his college roommate Mark Zuckerberg to create Facebook a decade ago, and that knowledge is fueling an audacious attempt to change the way people connect at work, where the incessant drumbeat of email has become an excruciating annoyance.

Moskovitz is trying to turn that chronic headache into an afterthought with Asana, a San Francisco startup he runs with former Facebook and Google product manager, Justin Rosenstein.

Asana peddles software that combines the elements of a communal notebook, social network, instant messaging application and online calendar to enable teams of employees to share information and do most of their jobs without relying on email.

"We are trying to make all the soul-sucking work that comes with email go away," Rosenstein says as Moskovitz nods sitting across from him in a former brewery that serves as Asana's headquarters. "This came out of a deep, heartfelt pain that Dustin and I were experiencing, along with just about everyone around us."

The misery keeps mounting in the corporate world, which remains an email haven. This year, each worker using a business email account will send and receive a daily average of 121 mail messages, a 15 percent increase from 105 per day in 2011, according to The Radicati Group, which tracks email usage.

In contrast, consumers have been weaning themselves from electronic inboxes and increasingly turning to digital alternatives such as Facebook, Twitter and mobile messaging.

More email translates to less productivity as workers spend more time weeding their inboxes and puzzling over convoluted exchanges among a hodgepodge of colleagues and managers scattered in various offices --or sometimes just a cubicles away. To exacerbate matters, vital pieces of business information are often corralled in a worker's inbox instead of in a database that can be searched by anyone working on the same project.

If companies set up communications channels that worked more like social networks, the amount of time workers could devote to other things would increase by about 8 percent each week, according to estimates from a study by the McKinsey Global Institute. Another 6 percent of the workweek would be freed up if the shift away from email could unlock more of the so-called "dark matter" hidden in individual inboxes, McKinsey estimates.

These are the problems Asana is trying to solve. Its bare-bones system, free to use for teams of up to 15 workers, is set up so information can be easily seen by anyone authorized by the company. Asana hopes to make money by selling subscriptions to more sophisticated versions of its software that can accommodate larger groups of workers.

Moskovitz began working on what would turn into an early prototype for Asana while he was still at Facebook in late 2007. He had become frustrated with email's shortcomings and set out to build a better alternative for managing Facebook's projects. Before long, he was spending all his time figuring out how to escape email instead of managing Facebook's engineers.

"A lot of people thought I was crazy, but from my perspective it was clearly the smartest thing that I could do to make (Facebook) better," Moskovitz recalls.

He finally decided to exit Facebook in late 2008 to start Asana, leaving behind a prototype that Facebook still relies on to manage its projects instead of email.

Moskovitz remains one of Facebook's major shareholders with stock worth about $7 billion, affording him the luxury to gamble on a startup that may be fighting a Sisyphean battle.

"I am not sure what anyone thinks they will be accomplishing by getting rid of email," say Sara Radicati, editor of the Radicati Group. "If we didn't have email, people would be spending all their time on the phone and other channels of communication. Is that really any better?"

While the Radicati Group foresees consumer email usage continuing to wane during the next four years, the firm predicts the volume of business email will rise another 16 percent by 2018 to an average of 140 daily emails sent and received by each user.

"Email can't be killed completely because it's the lowest common denominator in business," concedes Stewart Butterfield, who has been trying to sell companies on the merits of another alternative form of corporate communication called Slack. Like Moskovitz, Butterfield is better known for his involvement at another popular technology service: he co-founded Flickr, a photo-sharing site bought by Yahoo Inc. nine years ago.

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