Monday, February 08, 2010

24 years of email

I first got an email address with an Internet @ in it in 1986. It was [email protected], or for those of you on JANET it was [email protected] (happily I only briefly used bang paths). In 24 years I think there have been three major end-user innovations: address books, MIME and email searching.

Address Books

Initially, I didn't need an email address book. Most of the people I was emailing were on the same domain (often the same machine) and so everything after the @ was irrelevant. And the number of people on email world-wide was so small that remembering their email addresses was easy (I don't mean remembering them all, just remembering the ones I needed to talk to).

And most people's domains hadn't reached the point where just using initials was unworkable. So most email addresses consisted of their initials. That made them short and rememberable. I don't recall anyone with a ridiculous address like [email protected]

But things changed: the Internet got bigger, people's addresses got more complex, I was communicating with more and more people. Hence address books.


The ability to send more than just plain text inside an email (even if it is actually being transmitted as 7-bit ASCII) was big. Prior to the introduction of MIME in 1992 there were some limited ways to send binary content in email (mostly using uuencode) but it was an ugly mess and mail clients often didn't know what to do with the contents and you were forced to save the mail to a file and manually unpack it.

Happily, MIME made that problem go away.

Email Searching

As email got considerably more widespread it became necessary to put it into folders to try and keep a handle on the volume. This led to the sort of trees of folders that are seen in programs like Microsoft Outlook. This is, IMHO, a less than optimal solution. The right solution is the sort of high-speed email searching offered by Google Mail. With it folders are completely irrelevant.

In fact foldering was such a pain that it was part of the reason I invented POPFile.

The Bad

Two bad things have happened since I started using email: spam (first spam was in 1978 on ARPANET, but I don't recall any unwanted messages during the late 1980s at all) and HTML email. HTML email has been a spammers playground and for messages I want to receive (i.e. everything other than marketing) it's almost useless.

Minor irritations are: vacation responders, people who don't edit replies sending me gigantic threads embedded in a message.

8 years

That's one major innovation every 8 years. With Google Mail being released in 2004 we've got another 2 years to wait for the next one. What do you think it will be? For me it has to be something to do with threading. That's still pretty messy, and Google Wave doesn't seem to have improved it. I don't think the little > is cutting it anymore.



Blogger dasil003 said...

Enter facebook proxy emails... Just this morning I had to truncate email addresses in my app's user admin because of facebook proxy emails, eg:

[email protected]

6:33 PM  
Blogger martijn said...

But don't you think the problems with threading are mostly due to human laziness? I think ">" still works fine, as long as people know when (not) to use it.

I'm not saying that there can't be any improvements to mail readers that would force people to do the right thing, just that I wouldn't know which ones.

My money would be on something like DKIM being widely employed. Although that might take more than two years...

7:29 PM  
Blogger Mark Russell said...

I think there's an obvious advancement that nobody ever seems to mention: Security/encryption.

24 years later email passwords are often still sent in the clear every time you check or send mail. It's incredible! And nothing is ever encrypted (unless, perhaps you work for MI5). I can't ever remember receiving an encrypted message.

Ok, Gmail and some of the big hosted email services use HTTPS/SSL/TLS, for transmission, but a lot don't and I have to make sure I do whenever I hook my email client up to my own server on a new machine. And how many times do you set up your new, unique, really secure online password just for the provider to email it straight back to you in plain text?!

Maybe in 2012 Gmail or somebody will finally introduce a service that uses PGP or some key based email encryption. It is possible to set up in clients like Thunderbird, but you have to jump through so many hoops it's impractical and really tedious. Plus, nobody else is set up for it, rendering the bother moot.

Better still, somebody should make the whole concept far clearer and the keys easier to set up and get hold of. The whole think might have an impact on spam too.

9:24 PM  

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