Proclaiming the imminent death of email for the last three years has probably been a lonely and frustrating undertaking for Symon Blomfield, founder and CEO of Presence Networks, but he shows no sign of giving up. According to Blomfield, email’s time has come and gone, and there is now a far better way to do things – hosted instant messaging (IM).

This week the startup will launch the first version of its brand new IM business client, Networker version 4 (the previous 3 being betas). Because the service is hosted from Presence Networks’ servers, it is able to provide secure, encrypted instant messaging sessions between smallish groups of business users, and can even be extended by invitation to third-parties not directly using the service or software client itself.

According to Blomfield, the software can do everything an email client can do but without the headaches of email. It cannot be spammed, because it is a private service. It cannot be intercepted because it uses SSL encryption, and messages threads are logged and stored in a way that makes for easier regulatory compliance. And it is not P2P, as with public IM services, relying instead on a client-gateway-server relationship.

Some might see such a service as a nice add-on to email, but by Blomfield’s reckoning they would be dead wrong. Networker is not meant as an adjunct to email in a business, it is designed to completely replace it for frontline communication. For anyone wanting to get the best out of the service, running two communications systems in parallel email is pointless. Eventually, email has to die.

For the first time since it rose to dominate the Internet, it is possible that some companies will be in the frame of mind to give his pro-IM proselytising a fair hearing. Email is, by any standards, in trouble. Depending on who is measuring it, around 90 percent of all email sent around the globe is now classified as spam, and some put the percentage closer to 95 percent.

Companies spend an inordinate amount of money cleansing their businesses of this scourge, and all to get a small amount of meaningful store-and-forward text. In practice, a portion of this legitimate email is probably not worth reading anyway because it has ben sent to the user because they are on an email group, or because the sender believed – mistakenly – that they should be copied in.

Surprisingly, Blomfield’s objection to the medium is more basic – you don’t get to choose who contacts you. “The reality is I can’t choose who emails me, and there is almost no way round that,” adds Blomfield, who extends the same criticism to its predecessor, the telephone. This open model is now out of date. “For a while it [email] was great because very few people used it. With instant messaging, you choose who contacts you. The individual is more in control.”

In some ways, Networker puts one in mind of an older generation of collaborative tools such as IBM’s (formerly Lotus’s) Notes platform, but without the drawbacks that plagued Notes. The latter was, after all, seen as slow, expensive, a pain to manage, and (worst of all) a top-down way of managing collaboration. In Blomfield’s model, IM-as-a-service can be precisely what its users want it to be. They choose to whom they want to talk, and how to collaborate and using what specific applications (Networker includes teleconference, file exchange abilities, VoIP support, and a gateway to integrate with public IM systems on its way). The full list of features is worth studying because it goes well beyond conventional IM.

Setup takes minutes, and requires installing a client running under the Java runtime environment. The biggest difference with Notes, and virtually all email clients, quickly becomes apparent, namely that anyone can use this software from the first minute. There is no requirement to re-train to use it as a special piece of software. All the standard features require no explanation.

Email does have three elements that will keep it alive for a while yet. First, it is store-and-forward, which means email arrives to be read when the person is ready to read it, possibly some time later. By contrast, IM still has a reputation for intrusiveness, and Networker is not likely to be any different. Second up, email can be serendipitous. Because it is open, anyone can contact you. Most of those emails will be time-consuming, but a few will turn out to be useful. Any closed and secure system – even one that can be extended to third-parties through gateways – imposes limits on who can contact you and when. Third is simply inertia. People are used to email, at home and work.

Trusting to a service is also risky. It assumes WAN availability, and it assumes that there are no migration issues to be confronted. Using a service is fine, but what happens if the day comes to leave? The industry still lacks a clear migration strategy.

“It’s early days,” admits Blomfield. “It is very viral in terms of the way people can connect.” New-generation business IM based upon the service model will not explode because it requires a slow change of mindset. Email and IM will co-exist for a period of time, possibly indefinitely.

He is in no doubt that the change will come eventually, and the IM model will be the winner. “We increasingly live in a real-time society. Frankly, email is too slow.”