Email is undoubtedly the most important and widely used communication medium on the Internet. Current estimations indicate nearly 4.26 billion active users worldwide and over 7.9 billion email accounts; over 3.13 million emails are sent every second. The email software industry is worth $64 billion.
The email was not invented. It evolved in discrete steps. The first one was a digital analogue of leaving a short note on a colleague’s desk: the text or `message’ was moved into the colleague’s directory in a visible place where they logged in. The next step was a program called SNDMSG, sending messages to users accessing the same computer. Another step was the system MAILBOX, used at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1965. A more advanced system was developed when computers began to “talk” to each other over networks. The system had to imitate the full version of sending a letter: write the message on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, address it and “send” via a post office. The “imitation” was more complex, and Ray Tomlinson is credited with the first solution in 1971 or 1972.
Tomlison, an MIT graduate and ARPANET contractor, generalised the system for different computers. He introduced the symbol @ to identify the system users in the standard format name-of-the-user@name-of-the-computer. A “nice hack” for J. Postel, an early user and Internet pioneer. More than just a “hack”, email has lasted to this day, and it seems that it will not disappear any sooner. However, initially many people, including Tomlison, didn’t see much future for this new communication tool. Indeed, his first email contains only a few seemingly random characters, QWERTYUIOP. They are the capital letters of the first line of the standard American keyboard.
By 1974, encouraged by ARPANET, hundreds of military used email; two years later, 75% of all ARPANET personnel used email. The system rapidly evolved: email folders were invented by L. Roberts, J. Vittal developed software to organise messages, and commercial software for email was created. Offline readers and protocols for incoming (POP, Post Office Protocol and IMAP, Internet Message Access Protocol) and outgoing (SMTP, Simple Message Transfer Protocol) were developed in the 1980s. They paved the way for email to become accessible from different devices, such as smartphones, laptops, tablets and watches.
With the evolution of the Internet, user-friendly interfaces (Yahoo, Hotmail, Google) have appeared. Email security has improved, and many new features have been added.
In 1976 Queen Elizabeth II made history by being the first head-of-state to use an email; her username was HME2@ (“Her Majesty Elizabeth II”). Other famous people who used email before the end of the last century are B. Clinton, president@, UK Home Office, gen.ho@, D. Adams, 76206.2507@, C. Eastwood, rowdiyates@, D. Moore: Demim2@.
I exchanged the first emails with my friend and colleague Professor Doru Stefanescu in October 1992: he sent them from the Faculty of Physics on the Măgurele Platform, Romania, and I used the University of Western Ontario server in Canada. In December 1992, we moved to Auckland, New Zealand, where all my colleagues used email. In May 1992, I started a long email communication with my mentor Professor Solomon Marcus, which lasted till 12 March 2016.
In an email sent on 20 May 2021, my colleague Professor Nevil Brownlee, an expert in data communication, reminiscences the beginning of email in New Zealand:
As I recall, we started email via the NZ Post Office X.25 service,
using email clients on our VAX cluster, sometime in 1985.
We set up a leased-line connection to Victoria, providing email
between UA and VUW in 1987 (in Auckland folk in CS said “but we don’t know anyone in Victoria”!).
Once we got Internet access via the Kawaihiko (NZ Universities)
network, that gave us international email service.
The mail application in the iOS 16 (for iPhone and iPad) includes a few new features, all already incorporated in different email clients:
Recall: after sending an email, you have 10 seconds to reverse it.
Get reminders: tap a «Later» button to choose to be reminded about this email in an hour, later in the day, the next day, or at a custom time.
Suggestions: get intelligent search results that account for your typos and synonyms.
Follow-up: move sent email messages to the top of your inbox so you can quickly send a follow-up message.
Missing details notifications: get notified when a message is missing a recipient or attachment.
Rich links: add rich (which includes an inline image or video) link previews to email, adding more context at a glance.
Spark mail application has a variety of other features, including:
Notifications: get notified when you receive an important email.
Delegate: assign the message to a trusted colleague and discuss task details in a private chat.
Secure links: generate links to specific email(s) or entire threads from your inbox and share them.
Open attachments: most attachments open natively, but some open in another application.
Quick replies: send a short reply to an email in just two taps.
Set deadlines: select a due date for a task and get notified when it’s closed or fails to meet the deadline.
Team email: privately discuss specific emails in your inbox.
Team email: create emails together.
Team email: personalise email response by automatically filling in names.
Security and data privacy will play an increasing role in new email applications. According to Proton Mail
Public opinion is shifting away from surveillance capitalism, and it’s only a matter of time before all consumers demand greater control over who can access their data.
Proton Mail, «where privacy and freedom come first», is an email client for which privacy is the default. This end-to-end encrypted email service was founded in 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland. Unlike typical email providers such as Gmail and Outlook.com, Proton Mail uses client-side encryption to protect email content and user data before they are sent to Proton Mail servers. The service can be accessed through a Webmail client, the Tor network, or dedicated iOS and Android applications. Getting an account with a reduced service is free; full capabilities are by subscription. By the end of 2022, it will have about 70 million users.
Love or hate email
The statistics in the first section indicate that people love email. Email is valuable in business. It is used everywhere. Despite numbers, in a time when people disagree on almost everything, there seems to be a consensus that «email is frustrating, annoying, disruptive, etc.» Why? Because it never goes away; it follows us on smartphones and watches; it creates a debilitating volume; it is confusing due to lack of context and tone; it is there and cannot easily be retracted, etc.
A French labour law passed in 2017 aimed to preserve the «right to disconnect»: companies with at least fifty employees are required to negotiate specific policies about the use of email after work hours. The goal was to reduce email time during the evening or weekend. The law’s motivation is that email harms health and productivity and favours burnout; in a nutshell, email makes us miserable. These effects were partially confirmed by a study by researchers from the University of California, Irvine. Forty office workers were hooked to wireless heart-rate monitors for around twelve days (heart-rate variability is a common technique for measuring mental stress). Correlations between the time spent on email and high-stress levels have been found. People under stress seemed to respond quicker and with less care to messages.
Did you notice? Every company on the Internet seems to want your email address. Why? Because they can spam you with newsletters and offers or sell your email to collectors who then sell them in bulk to various customers, specifically advertisers (to track you relentlessly). Some email database lists are readily available on the Internet.
Some tools can make things harder for those trying to get email addresses. One method is to use an email relay service which generates multiple virtual email addresses you can use on applications and the Internet. Any emails sent to that address will automatically get forwarded to your actual inbox, and these virtual email addresses can be deleted anytime. For example, iCloud by Apple runs the service «hide my email» for paid iCloud Plus plans; a form is free with Apple’s Sign In service. Firefox Relay is an alias service made by Mozilla, which has a free limited version too, and DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused search provider, offers a free similar email protection service.
AI in email?
Some of the email clients use AI. Google’s Gmail, one of the most popular email clients, uses AI for some core features, like a) filtering out spam emails, b) filtering legitimate emails by category, c) predicting what to write next using the Smart Compos feature (including variations like auto-fills and auto-completes), d) flagging the most critical emails using the technology a) applied in reverse («AI triage»).
AI specialised applications for email using natural language generation to write better subject lines, optimise email send times, segment email lists and create email newsletters. Machine learning analyses historical records of email content, user behaviour, and email-based threats. Intelligent email protection applications analyse incoming emails to detect and block potential phishing attacks, malware attachments, and links to potentially dangerous websites. Conversely, they filter outbound emails to detect accidental data leakage, data exfiltration, and the misuse of confidential data. Intelligent Email Protection Software is a generic software used by Mimecast Email Security with Targeted Threat Protection or Proofpoint Email Security and Protection to prevent a company from sophisticated email-focused cyberattacks.
Is email AI protection infallible? No technology is perfect. There is no fool-proof solution able to prevent any attack. Hence, part of the responsibility falls on the end user – you, the reader – to know how to protect yourself (for example, by not clicking on links on messages sent by suspicious senders).
What is the future?
Covid-19 moved many activities online; hence, new digital communication tools have been improved or created. Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Team, Slack, and Signal are a few. Despite this, recent research reports show the dominance of email:
Smartphones are so popular you might assume that phone calls, text messages, video chat, Slack, Trello, or just social media would have surpassed email as the most popular form of communication. Surprisingly, they have only enabled its growth.
Email is, hands down, the most prominent form of communication and collaboration among businesses, and that’s not expected to change any time soon.
As the younger generation, more digital and technology savvy, will soon dominate the workforce worldwide, the email will adapt, so it will continue to change. How? It is difficult and unwise to make predictions. However, experts in communication agree on a few trends: communicating in a variety of styles, adapting integrations (not only calendar and a few applications), interactivity, responsive design, animated pictures, subscribers’ privacy, personalisation and segmentation.
Checking your email every five minutes rules out repose. There is no time to think, relax or dream without interruption. Next time you are enticed to send an email, ask yourself: „Do I need to send it?”
CRISTIAN S. CALUDE
. https://99firms.com/blog/how-many-email-users-are-there/#gref , 2022.
. Tomlinson noted that “… any single development is stepping on the heels of the previous one and is so closely followed by the next that most advances are obscured. I think that few individuals will be remembered.” Well, he was definitely wrong concerning himself.
. Internet history online, https://tinyurl.com/mpssv7fz .
. C. Jewiss. Celebrating The 50th Anniversary of Email: How It All Began,
. All emails are well preserved.
. UA = University of Auckland, VUW = Victoria University Wellington.
. https://sparkmailapp.com. Spark is developed by Readdle, https://readdle.com , a Ukrainian-founded tech startup with offices in Ukraine (Odesa, Kyiv), Silicon Valley and Berlin.
. https://tinyurl.com/mur9w7ne , June 2022.