79. Email: Past, Present and
By Andrew D. Wright
What we now call the Internet started out as a network of high speed
connections called ARPANET used for sharing data between research centers
all over the United States. Researchers being the clever people they are,
it was not long before this high speed network started carrying text
messages between individuals. As more and more messages were sent using
all manner of different formats, it became obvious that common standards
would need to be set.
Ray Tomlinson was an engineer at BBN, a company contracted to run ARPANET.
He'd written email software for use on a local network - one program to
send email and another to receive it. He combined the two programs into
one and selected the now-familiar "@" sign to separate the two parts of
the email address, the personal name and the machine name. Added to the
common file transfer protocol in 1972, by 1973 three fourths of the
traffic on ARPANET was email.
Over time the various attributes of email were determined using a public
Request For Comment (or RFC for short) system. At its heart, email is
simply a method for moving text around and your email inbox is just one
big text file. Your email program reads this file and makes it look like
separate letters for you. By the same token, any file attached to an email
such as a picture needs to be converted to text before it can be sent.
This conversion process can double the size of the original file, meaning
that email is an inefficient way to send large files.
The growth of email has been phenomenal. In 1979 email programs cost
thousands of dollars and required the kind of computer and network access
only large corporations and universities had and there were around a half
million email accounts. By 1990 and the start of the microcomputer
revolution there were about 12 million email accounts world-wide. Today
about a billion people, many with multiple email addresses, use the
Though the first spam, or unsolicited commercial email, was sent in 1978,
spam didn't become a serious problem until the late 1990's. Today more
than 90% of email is spam and about 2% is viruses (down from 15% in
2004). Email today is only functional because of aggressive filtering by
Internet Service Providers. This filtering can catch legitimate messages
and the cost of spam can be measured in lost friendships and lost goodwill
as well as wasted time and money.
Email of the future will have to have better authentication of where it is
from. At present the vast majority of spam originates from millions of
hijacked home computers which add fake address headers. There has been
discussion of "default deny" policies for incoming email, where no one
could send you mail unless you had first cleared them. Some commercial
email software does this now but its use is not widespread. Increased
usage of Instant Messaging and Voice Over IP technology will also affect
the direction email develops next.
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Originally published 5 March 2006