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79. Email: Past, Present and Future

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 Internet.

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.

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, email If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


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Originally published 5 March 2006


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