Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ten years of email

This week Google's Gmail crossed the 7 GB storage threshold – meaning
that anyone can get a mailbox with at least that much storage, and for
free, too. (The size continues to increase slightly each day, wonder
of wonders.) It made me stop and think about how much my email habits
have changed in the past ten years, when Marshall Rose and I sat down
to write a book about Internet emails. Back then, 7 GB was a lot of
room for your mailbox, and I don't think anyone imagined that we would
have it free of charge, either.

Of course, one thing that is very odd is that Gmail has been in beta
like, forever it seems. (We are coming up on close to 5 years.) I
wonder when Google will consider it good enough for a release
candidate? If this had been Microsoft, we would be on v 3.1 or
something by now, for sure. One wag suggested that the real product
name is "Gmail Beta." Har har.

Ten years ago, I was using desktop email software to store my
messages. If memory serves me, I used a succession of products,
including Eudora, Thunderbird, and Lotus Notes. When I had problems
with T-bird corrupting my messages about two and a half years ago, I
switched to Gmail, and have been a pretty happy camper for the most
part. What is interesting is that Google hosts the email for my domain, again, completely free of charge and with a very
capable user interface as well. I don't need to store my emails on any
desktop, because it lives in the cloud.

So ten years ago, we had the following email programs popular enough
that we included them in our book: Lotus cc:Mail (extinct), Netscape
Messenger (extinct but replaced by Thunderbird you could say), Eudora
Pro (still very much alive, although no longer under the thumb of a
phone handset maker thankfully), Compuserve (not extinct but should
be), AOL (ditto and back then it was on v3), and Microsoft's Outlook
Express (v4 that came with IE v4, and replaced with the Mail app in

Curiously, CS and cc:Mail were proprietary software that didn't start
out using Internet protocols and standards, and had their basis in
local area networks (cc:Mail) and closed online systems (Compuserve).
The ones that are still among us are Internet-savvy. Indeed, you could
say that AOL had one of the first popular gateways to Internet emails
(although MCIMail beat it by several years, it wasn't very popular).
Compuserve was also very popular in its day, despite having email
addresses that only a geek could love like 73234,5869. Trying saying
that string often to your friends.

Back ten years ago, we didn't have Web-based emailers that were worth
much of anything. They had few features, couldn't really interoperate
with all that many browsers, and had lots of other quirks. Outlook's
Web interface was dog slow and required all sorts of tricks to work
across a public Internet connection. We wrote in our book: "Either the
market will enforce adult supervision … whereby IMAP technology is …
standardized or a huge opportunity will open up for Web-based email
readers." Gmail has tried to play both ends here, with its support of
the IMAP protocols as part of its service.

In our book, we introduced the concept of having 100% pure Internet
for your email – having products that faithfully implement Internet
standards natively if possible. And yes, Notes/Domino, Groupwise, and
Exchange are all far from 100% pure, which is why they are in decline.

Back ten years ago, email was still a relatively new concept for
corporate communications. You could still find pockets of people who
weren't accessible via a "dot com" email address, and not that many
people put their email address on their business card. It was rare to
find a corporation that would be diligent about answering their emails
from their customers in a timely fashion. Well, some things don't ever

Back then we didn't have the broadband penetration that we do now, and
certainly not the Wifi penetration that we have now. It is perhaps
harder to resist the urge to check your email because it is so
available. With Blackberries, iPhones, and Internet kiosks everywhere
you don't even need a laptop to stay connected. And the US is even far
behind other countries now, sad to say. Ten years ago we still had
dial up modems that we used to get connected. I haven't touched a
modem in so long that I can't remember when, but it was probably
around ten years ago when I started tossing them and not carrying them
on business trips anymore.

One thing that hasn't changed much in ten years is secure email usage:
almost no one does this, despite some major advances in encryption
ease of use. In our book, we called the state of secure email
standards "a sucking chest wound" saying that no one has a solution
that is multivendor, interoperable, and Internet standards based. That
is mostly true today, although there are some solutions that do a
better job at hiding the certificate management and automatically
decrypt and encrypt message traffic. And several multivendor attempts
in the past decade to standardize on approaches have mostly met with
failure. Still, despite the many well-publicized breaches, secure
email remains out of reach of ordinary humans.

I hope you enjoyed my trip down email memory lane. Certainly, email
has become the glue that binds together so much of our communications.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.