A walled garden among walled gardens: What if email was invented today?

In an era of incompatible social networks, how would email evolve if it was invented today. Not too well, cautions Nathaniel Borenstein, one of the creators of the MIME protocol.
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

Email is ubiquitous, reliable, unremarked and unremarkable. It just is - and it just works. But it's no longer the only way we communicate online: social networks are increasingly augmenting (and, for the young, replacing) email as a way of sharing and communicating.

So, in this context of competing platforms, what would email look like if it was invented today?

It would look very different, according to Nathaniel Borenstein, chief scientist at email company Mimecast and one of the inventors of the MIME protocol that allows attachments to be added to email — one of the fathers of sharing, if you will.

For him the risk would be that email would become a walled garden, just like the social networks.

"There's one huge difference that I'm afraid would happen, which is instead of being based on open standards so you can send mail from any system to any other, we might have ended up with what we have now with Facebook, Google+ or Skype where you can only communicate with people in that service," Borenstein told ZDNet.

In the early 1980s some email providers, such as AOL and Compuserve, did actually try that walled garden approach, albeit only for a short time and unsuccessfully. One reason for the quick turnaround was that they couldn't scale their businesses quickly enough relative to the growth of the internet as a whole and as a result were forced to open up.

The internet "was growing fast and run by a bunch of open system nuts, so they eventually had to give in and gateway their mail to everybody else. That didn't take very long, actually," he said.

Is openness still important?

But this would not necessarily happen again today, according to Borenstein.

"What bothers me is that I don't see the same pressures now. Why can't Facetime talk to Skype? Why can't Google+ talk to Facebook? Why can't you choose what you're using and share all that information? There's no fundamental reason, there's no standard for it but there's no one working on a standard for it either because none of those guys want that," he added.

Instead we live in a world of competing providers, for whom basic communication - via email or instant messaging or some other model - is a tool to help promote their other products or services.

"In this environment, if somebody invented email, whoever managed to get critical mass first would become the world's de facto email provider."

In his book The Gorilla Game: Picking Winners in High Technology, Geoffrey Moore talks about how some markets are naturally made up of gorillas (such as Microsoft's operating system dominance) whereas others are made up of smaller companies, or 'chimps'.

"Those are the two paradigms that these protocols fall into, but I don't know if it's as natural to the protocol world as he says it is to the business world; that is, Skype could be an open protocol system and email could be closed depending on when it was invented and how it played out," Borenstein said.

So if email was invented now and there was one standard provider of services, that was a closed system that didn't work with other services, would we be paying for each email sent? Unlikely. Again, some providers did try that in the early days of email, but quickly had to have a change of heart. Even with micro-transactions now commonplace, if email was invented now, we still wouldn't be paying for each mail sent.

"Email isn't any different from any of the other communications or collaboration protocols like social networking or video conferencing, which is to say, there is a dynamic that chases out charges in exchange for market share. Skype wouldn't have its market share if they were charging you for its basic service, so they give that for free and charge for something else," Borenstein said.

"If email was started now, it wouldn't surprise me if the service was free but you were charged for attachments or something."

But with examples of multiple open source projects that have received huge amounts of support over recent years, isn't there a chance that the market email or social networking gorilla would embrace open standards?

"There's a lot of support for open source projects, but the attempts to make open source and open standard social networking have really gone nowhere. I can point you to this great social networking system that works with several others and none of them have any of your friends. That's your killer. I'm pessimistic in the short term and optimistic in the long term."

The hidden costs

The hidden cost of using these free social networking or email services, as noted elsewhere, is the exchange of privacy for convenience: a free Gmail account is still paid for through other means, though the real cost comes at the price our privacy.

This doesn't concern Borenstein — not because it isn't a concern, but because he thinks it's already too late.

"I'm not one of the people that's vocal about it [privacy] because I believe the battle is lost. Privacy is over and that's about a combination of the technology and peoples' attitudes," Borenstein said. "I think the right to privacy is a lot like the right to eternal life. You can enshrine it in the constitution and say people have a right to eternal life but I don't think people are going to be exercising it. Every one of our technologies seems to work against it [privacy]."

"In the enterprise world, you don't talk so much about privacy as about information security and if you've got professionals working on it, manning the firewalls you can slow the leak to a trickle. You don't get that on behalf of people," he added.

The future of email?

Last time we met, Borenstein he told me about an email analytics capability Mimecast was developing.

"We're still working on it. The analytics have a very interesting set of privacy implications," Borenstein said.

"We can scan the whole archive of files and instant messages and so on so we can do some interesting things but how interesting they are is how willing you are to violate someone's privacy to some extent."

For example, what if a sales rep about to send an email to somebody is informed that someone else in the company is already talking to them? Or what if a large company spread around the globe has one central mail archive that can be scanned, and that information can be used to introduce geographically spread employees that are working on similar things?

The possibilities go on, but Borenstein notes that appropriate implementation of any system like this is the key. What if in the above example, the project the employees were working on were deliberately secret, or had a personal interest that happened to be shared by certain other employees in the company? Any system like this would be subject to controls like role-based permissions.

"What's going to be appropriate is going to really different from one company to the next and therefore it's not trivial to decide how you are going to do this thing," Borenstein said. "But I really think the benefits in the long-run could be huge."

There are other benefits of being able to scan an entire email archive in one swoop to identify patterns of communication that are indicative of nefarious activities, such as fraud, although this too has to be dealt with carefully.

"My guess is that a conspiracy to defraud the shareholders looks a lot like planning a surprise birthday party, so the question is what to do with that when you find it. The wrong answer is send it to the whole board of directors, the right answer is probably to send it to an information security specialist who looks at sensitive stuff all the time anyway," Borenstein said.

While the potential applications of an email analytics system might sound concerning on a privacy level for employees, Borenstein contends that the current situation is the worst of both worlds.

"Since the dawn of email every company, with the exception of a few has told its employees, their corporate email belongs to the company, and they have no expectation of privacy. But companies never look at it, he says, "because a) the only time they need to is if there is a legal issue, and then they will and b) they're scared to death to look because even though they said that [they could] feel like you might feel it's an invasion of privacy," he said.

"It's the worst of both worlds: you tell your employees we're assholes, but then you don't get the benefit of being an asshole."

Editorial standards