E-mail has come a long way in 30 years

In 1971 the first electronic message launched a revolution that some compare to the invention of the printing press and the telephone.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
9 min read
Thirty years ago, a simple message launched a revolution in the history of human communications.

That dispatch is now considered the first e-mail, or electronic message, to have been sent from one computer to another through a network. Devised by BBN Technologies scientist Ray Tomlinson, the system for sending e-mail was initially a demonstration of what the ARPAnet--the Internet's precursor--could do.

Now, powerful new developments such as wireless networks, broadband for the masses and instant messaging are sweeping the world toward a second great communications upheaval. Nevertheless, many believe that unassuming demonstration three decades ago has yet to be bested.

E-mail bar chart

"E-mail is nothing short of revolutionary," Sonia Arrison, director of the Pacific Research Institute's Center for Technology Studies, wrote in an e-mail interview. "It deserves a spot in the list of great communications inventions such as the printing press, telegraph and telephone.

"E-mail has affected every aspect of human communication, from dating to conducting business and even to conducting war...It is also a way to transport the goods and services of the 21st century: ideas. What railroads were to the 19th century and what airplanes were to the 20th century, e-mail is to the 21st."

For the first two decades of its life, e-mail led a somewhat cloistered existence in the halls of academe and the military and among computer enthusiasts. Two subsequent technological innovations--the personal computer and the World Wide Web--had a catalytic effect on the medium, causing it to explode into the mainstream.

Today more than half of all Americans use e-mail, for an average of a half-hour each day, according to a recent report by Forrester Research. Another research company, Jupiter Media Metrix, predicts that by 2006, 140 million Americans will be "active" e-mail users, up from 87 million this year.

see report: IBM PC turns 20 The medium has spread throughout the world, attracting people with its combination of efficiency, familiarity and--for those already in possession of a computer and an Internet connection--economy.

"The marvelous thing about e-mail is that it's got the intimacy of a phone conversation but the asynchronicity of a letter," said Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future. "It's an entirely new medium that combines the best of the old media. But it's not that there aren't downsides. People have discovered that the biggest danger is that their fingers often outrace their brains."

Indeed, the seeming fleeting nature of e-mail, combined with its actual permanence in many instances, has proved a hazardous combination for its users. E-mail sent in the workplace has sullied many a career and reputation, with offensive or incriminating messages coming back to haunt both rank-and-file workers and executives alike.

In the case that most dramatically illustrated e-mail's hazards, Microsoft's then-Chief Executive Bill Gates was repeatedly forced to contend with his own years-old e-mail and that of other Microsoft executives, which government prosecutors used to undermine the company's defense against antitrust charges.

Nonetheless, the world's richest e-mail account holder lauded e-mail in his latest book, "Business @ the Speed of Thought," calling it "a key component of our digital nervous system" and urging executives to insist on its use for business communications.

A short history of Eudora
Tomlinson's achievement 30 years ago has become a focal point now, but he is quick to share credit for the invention.

In an interview with CNET News.com, he acknowledged the technologies that served as the foundation for his first system for sending e-mail. These included the SNDMSG protocol for leaving electronic messages for other people on a time-shared computer, and an RFC (request for comment) that described a way to send messages across a computer network. That RFC relied on a printout at the receiving end, however, and was never implemented.

How e-mail stacks up
Percentage of North American consumers using the following modes of communication and the average amount of use per day:
Land-line phone 92% 45 minutes
E-mail 53% 29 minutes
Mobile phone 43% 16 minutes
IM 17% 16 minutes
Online chat 9% 24 minutes
Mobile messaging 4% 14 minutes

Source: Forrester Research

The inventor, who cannot recall the exact date or the contents of his first e-mail, also cited the work of hundreds of others who have developed programs and protocols that make e-mail what it is today, complete with graphics and attachments.

One application that helped bring e-mail to the mainstream was Eudora, first written in 1988 by Steve Dorner, an employee at the University of Illinois--birthplace a few years later of Mosaic, the Web browser that would give rise to Netscape Communications and the Web's soaring popularity.

Named for now deceased Eudora Welty, the American author of the short story "Why I Live at the P.O.," Eudora the application delivered a graphical interface for e-mail management and soon became a staple in corporations and on college campuses.

Dorner originally provided the software for free. Later he went to work for Qualcomm, which purchased rights to Eudora for internal use and turned it into a profitable product in 1994.

For a short time, Eudora ruled the day. Then, with the rise of the Web, Netscape and Microsoft began giving away e-mail technology with their browsers and productivity suites. Soon Microsoft and its Outlook software eclipsed Eudora.

"What happened over time was that most people found that they're OK with the e-mail client that comes along with their browser," said Jeff Beckley, lead engineer on Windows Eudora. "What Eudora has always excelled at is the more advanced user, someone who gets a lot of e-mail. There still are lots of average users who use Eudora, but it becomes increasingly difficult to find those types of people."

One of the most significant changes to e-mail in the past five years has been the rise of Web-based e-mail. Popularized by Hotmail, the idea was to let people maintain e-mail accounts through a Web site that they could access from any networked computer, rather than from their home or work Internet connection only.

Hotmail proved a smash hit, and Microsoft bought it in January 1998 for $400 million--a price that Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia later said he regretted as too low. Microsoft in August claimed that the service had more than 110 million users worldwide.

Hotmail's success inspired a host of competitors, and soon Web-based e-mail became a de rigueur offering for portal sites such as Yahoo, Netscape, Excite and Lycos.

Web-based e-mail also became a favorite target of malicious hackers and bug hunters.

Pandora's in-box
While e-mail has become the Internet's unchallenged "killer app," its ascendance has not been painless. For good or ill, it has fostered a dependence on instant communication that has transformed the pace of business life and irrevocably blurred the walls separating home and office. It has also spawned marketing plagues and crippling contagions of computer viruses.

Faced with a growing population of e-mail accounts and virtually free distribution, e-mail marketers have unleashed what many consider to be the Internet's greatest scourge: unsolicited commercial e-mail, or "spam."

"E-mail has had a huge impact on marketing," said Sanford Wallace, an e-mail marketer who gained notoriety as the chief executive of the spam outfit CyberPromotions. "The speed and the interactive nature of e-mail have provided a wonderful medium for advertisers and consumers to communicate with one another, at a fraction of the cost. But if you're not very careful, you can find yourself doing more harm than good as a marketer."

In his reign as the so-called spam king, or "Spamford," Wallace attracted the ire of the public, his Internet service providers and the courts. After four years as one of the Internet's most notorious personalities, Wallace officially renounced spam in 1998 and since then has devoted his energies to "opt in" e-mail marketing in which consumers choose to receive advertising.

see report: Linux 10th anniversary "People have a personal relationship with their computer, much more so than they would have with their mailbox, so unsolicited messages become more of an invasion than postal mail," Wallace said. "I think the most important thing is that people want to have control of their computer, and unsolicited e-mail is a violation of that control."

If spam has blackened e-mail's eye, then security woes have bloodied it with the advent of e-mail-borne viruses, worms and Trojan horses.

Corporate and consumer e-mail systems alike have found themselves under regular attack in the past several years, as malicious hackers have outdone one another with coding stunts that have taken advantage of ever-more-complex e-mail programs such as Microsoft's Outlook.

In the past year alone, e-mail has delivered an uninterrupted procession of destructive and expensive pests and their recurrences, the names of which have caused IS managers to shudder and shareholders in security software companies to rejoice: Nimda, Kournikova, SirCam, Trojan.Offensive, Chernobyl, LoveLetter and Ramen, among countless others.

E-mail has been a conveyance for trouble for most of its history, according to security experts. A common prank in the early days consisted of simple teletype messages that altered the functions of recipients' console keyboards.

But it wasn't until the advent of the e-mail attachment that the security problem became acute.

"E-mail was initially a pretty safe mode of communication, since it consisted mostly of simple text," said Elias Levy, CTO of SecurityFocus. "The MIME standard allowed fairly sophisticated ways of attaching any type of file to an e-mail message. And this is where e-mail-based viruses, worms and all kinds of malicious code began making their appearance."

Adding to the arsenal of virus and worm authors was the continual addition of new features to e-mail programs. Microsoft's Outlook program has become a particular favorite of authors, who have taken frequent advantage of its flexible address book to rapidly propagate viruses.

Another bane of the security community's existence is the advent of HTML e-mail, which Levy calls "the latest and most horrendous step we've seen in e-mail" in relation to security.

"It's popular because HTML has come a long way from being a data format for rendering documents to something with active content, including Java, JavaScript and ActiveX components," Levy said. "Obviously, complexity is the enemy of security. But people find that nice fonts and colors work from a marketing point of view, so people are led to believe that it's safe."

For malicious hackers trying to invade corporate intranets, e-mail poses an efficient way to pierce a firewall, Levy added.

"Sometimes the easiest way to get past a firewall is e-mailing a few people in the company with a Trojan," Levy said. "You're bound to find someone who's willing to open it, and then you're in."

New directions
Just as e-mail was gaining mainstream acceptance, another form of written electronic communications emerged in the form of instant messaging. First made popular by America Online, instant messaging has become a hotly contested front line in the battle between AOL Time Warner, Microsoft, Yahoo and others for the allegiance of Internet users.

True to its name, instant messaging has accelerated the pace of online communications, giving it a leg up on e-mail for many social and corporate uses. Still, instant messaging lags behind e-mail, with only 17 percent of Americans using it, as opposed to 53 percent who use e-mail, according to Forrester.

So far, instant messaging has largely evaded the pests that have plagued e-mail. But there are already signs that e-mail's hyperactive younger sibling is not immune to either spam or malicious code.

Many predict that e-mail and instant messaging applications will come together, and to some degree they already have. Some IM applications can deliver a message that a person can read at his or her leisure--much like e-mail--if the person is offline when the message is sent.

Whatever form e-mail takes in the future, however, its place in history is already assured.

"It turns out that the communications revolution of e-mail today very closely mirrors the postal mail revolution of 100 years ago," said Saffo of the Institute of the Future.

"In the Victorian period in England, the mail became affordable and reliable and engineered a social revolution quite similar to the social revolution of e-mail today. But it was also a business revolution. The postal revolution industrialized the letter--and e-mail's done the same thing."

News.com's Gwendolyn Mariano contributed to this report.