Thinking out of the inbox

Thinking out of the inbox

Summary: It's easier to create and access email than ever before but the communication medium we all love to hate is facing an uncertain future

TOPICS: Tech Industry

While 26 trillion emails will be sent across the world on a daily basis during 2007, into the future, usage is expected to plateau and, over time, to metamorphose.

According to IDC, increases in volume will only hit single figures because, on the one hand, the market is pretty much saturated and, on the other, users, especially the younger generation, are starting to rely increasingly on alternative collaboration tools, such as instant messaging (IM), voice over IP (VoIP) and blogs, to communicate and share information.

Of the 26 trillion emails flying around cyberspace each day, said Mark Levitt, IDC's program vice president for collaborative computing and the enterprise workplace, almost 11 trillion will comprise spam, 10.5 trillion will consist of person-to-person communications, and 4.5 trillion will be email alerts and notifications.

But just how is it that email has become so massive and where did it come from in the first place? Electronic mail, or email as it is now known, predates the internet and was, in fact, one of the "killer apps" that contributed to its current popularity.

The idea behind it first emerged in 1965 when various research institutions wrote the first text-message-exchange applications as a means of enabling users of time-sharing mainframes, which could run more than one application, to communicate with each other.

But the next big step towards a system that could be recognised today as email was made by Ray Tomlinson, a programmer at US acoustics consultancy Bolt Beranek and Newman.

Tomlinson had helped develop the Tenex operating system (OS), which later became one of the most popular PDP-10 OSs and included support for the Arpanet network control protocol. The Arpanet was developed by the US Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa) and was the first operational packet-switching data network — the predecessor of the internet.

But in late 1971, Tomlinson wrote a file transfer program called CPYNet, which could copy and transfer files over the Arpanet, and added it to another application called SNDMSG.

SNDMSG had been written to send messages to other users of time-sharing mainframes, but Tomlinson now rewrote it to run on Tenex. He also chose the "@" symbol, which is still in use today, to combine both user and host names in order to extend addressing to the network. This meant that, for the first time, it was possible to send simple transactional messages to users working on different hosts connected to the Arpanet.

While the medium continued to evolve over the next couple of decades, it wasn't until 1988 that email went commercial. This happened courtesy of Vint Cerf, who had worked on the Arpanet, helped develop the TCP/IP protocol and was one of the founding fathers of the current-day internet.

At the time, however, he was vice president of MCI Digital Information Services. Through the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, a non-profit organisation set up to develop network-based information technologies, Cerf arranged to connect the company's internal email system, MCI Mail, to the National Science Foundation's NSFNet for "experimental" purposes.

The NSFNet was a TCP/IP-based network that enabled academic researchers to access five supercomputing centres in the US, and the move constituted the first commercial use of the internet for email.

Five years later, however, large network service providers America Online and Delphi followed suit and also connected their proprietary email system offerings to the internet — a move that kick-started the wide-scale adoption of online email as a crucial business and personal communications tool that has, to some extent, replaced voice.

But just because email in its current form is wildly popular does not mean to say that it will retain its dominance forever or that its usage will remain the same.

Matt Cain, lead email analyst at Gartner, for one, predicts that the medium will evolve over the next few years in four key ways. Firstly, he anticipates that access will become almost ubiquitous, with users increasingly expecting to access their email via any web browser on any mobile device instantly, particularly as wireless networks become ever more widespread.

Secondly, organisations will start to segment their email users and provide different groups with access to different levels of service in a bid to cut costs. While a typical Microsoft Exchange account costs about $10 (£5) per user, per month, companies are already starting to explore cheaper options for light users, such as factory workers or data-input clerks.

"But this can be a mixed blessing because of the administration costs," Cain warned. "The history of email over the last decade has been that most organisations are trying to get down to a single email system, but we're seeing that start to change now."

The third trend relates to a growing move to managed email services. While the adoption of this model currently accounts for less than five percent of the total market...

Topic: Tech Industry

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  • Dr Vinton Cerf - Founder of the Internet

    On March 2007, Alessandro Sorbello of New Realm Media interviewed Dr Vinton Cerf who was in Brisbane Australia to present
  • What to do about SPAM?

    I found the article informative but with SPAM forming such a high porportion of the volume of email traffic, I was surprised the article did not cover the issue of SPAM in greater depth.

    For instance, is the porportion of SPAM that clutters the network expected to rise further or is there hope out there for a developing technology that will make serious inroads into find those who are responsible for it?
  • Same Old Same Old - Who Needs It Unified?

    Gosh but this is all a bit over blown.

    We are only looking at evolving electronic delivery tools for traditional hierarchies of communications guys, not the second coming.

    Primarily new delivery mechanisms for private and public communication.

    Before we used the public postal service or private internal paper based mail.

    Now we have the internet or private e-mail for the same jobs, which works better for , or even enables, global business across time zones as well as being faster and much cheaper than hard copy messaging.

    Same principles, different transport

    Again we have IM as the new telegram or teletype and voice as voice for when it matters, but now with Mobile comms added for voice with the same text option using SMS to replace teletype, VM is an answeringmacine by another name.

    Do we need it all? No, unless we have specialist jobs. Its an American thing for peope who have tiny attention spans and want to feel important. In reality you can only take in so much information and respond to it, so which do you answer - the monitored and receipted corporate mail. or the unrecorded IM?

    VoIP does not belong in these categories at all, its an enabling technology which allows the unification of multiple primary comms modalities on a single transmission technology. Do we need Unified messaging? Its benn aroun d as an idea since 1996 with Unified voice, fax and email but still has not really joined up 12 years later. Need unproven. It has not, as the article takes too long to say, overcome the proprietariness of the primary applications and their APIs, something Anericans can never agree on in the interests of a whole industry never mind the world - any standard as long as its mine.

    The way the traffic gets there is not a primary means of communication. I really doubt the value of IP beyond Web 2 style thin client server based infrastructure and a common trunk network. I don't need my email on my SMS , my Voice Mail in my SMS or email, thanks. I use these media for different things, the messages are of different lenghts, detail and urgency and I want them kept separate so I know how to react.

    The ONLY thing I would like occasionally (e.g. probably not a compelling commercial market requirement) is a smart mobile device which will enable me to send an email using my mobile or forward an SMS to an email adress from my mobile when on the move. I know I can send an email from my mobile, but never managed to forward an SMS this way.

    In the end its quicker to make the voice call and wait to get to an office with WiFi or a hotel for the key strokes on a real keyboard - mail needs to be done in an office style environment. IM and SMS are on the move half-thoughts conveying different information acted on differently because of the communications medium. They are not and should not be converged or unified.

    Unification confuses the media and the message, as it would have done if all the bits of paper looked the same and went in the same in tray with same priority in the days of snail mail.

    Its just more hype to sell technology from IP techies and managements that don't understand real marketing. Sure there are uses. When the way people work and what they actually need in the context of location and situation is taken into consideration we might start getting the sorts of unification we do need, rather than the technology people want to sell us, as in streaming low res content on a tiny mobile display at high bandwidth cost versus watching it on broadband at home for free ...... Hello!

    Brian Catt

    PS And finally the only real use of IM I have seen is also as old as the hills and a bit disposable, its to pass private electronic notes to others during electronic meetings, its just replaced the paper notes in meetings within the global PC conferencing pardigm (there I said para dig em)