Texting, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter – we have dozens of ways to pass a message from one user to the next, and yet we keep coming back to email. Why? According to the man who sent the first one, because there’s still nothing quite like it.
Possibly the most revealing statement that can be made about the power and persistence of email is that – unlike almost everything else in the technology industry – how we use it has remained virtually unchanged for more than 40 years.
According to the Radicati Group, 144.8 billion emails are sent every day, and that number is projected to rise to 192.2 billion in 2016. There are about 3.4 billion email accounts worldwide, Radicati said, with three-quarters owned by individual consumers.
The youngest users of email, however, have an enormous number of different methods to choose from to communicate – and many of them prefer these methods for most communications.
This, in turn, has prompted to some to wonder whether email is a dinosaur, among them young people who say they actually mean “Facebook” when they say “email”. In 2010, comScore kicked off a fuss by noting that Web email use had dropped 59% among teens. So why would anyone continue to use email in the age of social media?
“Because none of them really fill the space that email serves, which is you have a specific audience,” answers Ray Tomlinson, a principal engineer at BBN Technologies and the so-called “father of email.”
“A lot [of the alternatives] are like a billboard, with limited utility – you put these things on the billboard, and if they choose to they [your audience] can look and see it.”
“But email has the time difference – that is, you send it now, you read it later – you don’t have to have someone sitting there and ready to respond like you do with instant messaging to make it work and make it effective,” Tomlinson explains. “You can use instant messaging that way, but if they’re not there, nothing happens, and you gotta remember that there may be a message coming back to you and go back to the IM client and look for the response.”
The Birth Of Email
In 1971 Tomlinson worked as an engineer for Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), a contractor that had been assigned to develop ARPANET, a communication network that would allow scientists and researchers to share each other’s computer resources.
In the fall of 1971, Tomlinson sent the first network email, using the SNDMSG program that ran on the TENEX time-sharing program for Digital PDP-10 computers. Email on a single computer had existed since the early 1960s, the equivalent of a digital post-it note that could be left to another user. But Tomlinson tweaked the CPYNET file transfer program, then appended it to SNDMSG. That gave one user the power to send a message to another on a remote machine, and email was born.
The first email message has been lost to history; Tomlinson tells ReadWriteWeb that it was one of a number of “entirely forgettable” test messages. But that first email message, sent from one machine physically sitting next to another, functioned as a sort of “hello world” message explaining that, well, network email was up and running. The response was low-key.
“I don’t recall any actual replies” to the first email, Tomlinson says. “I did get some comments from people in the hall.”
Tomlinson was also the first person to use the now ubiquitous “@” symbol – a no-brainer, as it explained that a user was “at” a given host, Tomlinson said. There was one glitch, however: “I was later reminded that the Multics time-sharing system used the @ sign as its line-erase character. This caused a fair amount of grief in that community of users,” he notes on his own website.
Email began to take hold as both a cultural and a technical phenomenon in 1972, when the next release of TENEX was shipped – on magnetic tape via snail mail – to some 15 other sites scattered around the country. Users could then send messages back and forth. As each site came online, email’s utility increased, Tomlinson recalls.
Even back then, though, email was used in much the same way it is now.
“I think it was mostly used as a replacement for telephone calls,” Tomlinson says. “You got a more immediate response. With time zone differences you didn’t have to have someone there to receive the call.”
Forty years later, email use has grown to enormous proportions. But most of it is not legitimate communications and more than half of it never gets delivered. According to the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (which has reformed to fight take on malware as well) between 88% and 90% of all email sent during the first three quarters of 2011 were spam, or unsolicited commercial email. For example, Microsoft’s Hotmail alone processes more than 8 billion messages a day. But only some 2.5 billion messages are delivered to the user’s inbox.
Several types of methods of dealing with spam have sprung up: blocking or “blacklisting” domains notorious for sending spam; blocking everything except for approved“whitelisted” domains,” and various filtering techniques that use reputation or text analysis to try and block suspicious emails.
Tomlinson supports whitelisting, where only users who pass through some additional level of security are allowed to send email. “If it’s a person out there he’ll send it again,” Tomlinson said. “If it’s a machine he’ll move on and send it to the other five million.”
But the spam problem is also one of identity. When Tomlinson first sent networked emails into the ether, the address was a specific person. Today, email senders can use aliases, multiple accounts and even bots to communicate. Should users be forced to tie themselves to a single email identity? The debate has included both Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who has promoted user Facebook accounts as identity tokens, as well as 4chan founder Christopher Poole, a strong advocacy for privacy and anonymity online. Tomlinson takes a middle view.
“In some ways the lack of an official identity when using email has compounded problems like spam, but I think that’s the convenience versus utility versus functionality,” Tomlinson says. “It’s more convenient if you don’t have to worry about identifying yourself. You don’t have to buy a [security] certificate, or authenticate the centers of email.
“I think completely anonymous email would not be a good idea,” Tomlinson adds. “On the other hand, having email identities that you can link to very specific information is a definite problem. It’s one thing to say I am who I am, but I’m not going to tell you my life history at the same time.”
The Future of Email
In many ways, the future of email is already here today. SMS text messages are archived; instant message windows can be left open, and Facebook Messenger treats an instant message to an offline friend as, essentially, an email. This latter model is what Tomlinson sees email evolving into over time.
“Whether the name will persist or not, I suspect email will be around for at least for a good long time,” Tomlinson predicts. “We may find that these other forms of communication may be merged with email, so you send an IM to somebody, and if they don’t respond it turns into an email-like thing without any intervention on your part.”
Tomlinson image courtesy of BBN.
Black and white image by Dan Murphy.
Lead, spam and @ symbol images courtsey of Shutterstock.