October marks the 40th anniversary of the first e-mail. As one might imagine, it was connected with the Internet’s forerunner, ARPANET, the military communications network. Ray Tomlinson, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was modifying a program that allowed different users of the same computer to send messages to each other. In those pre-PC days, computers were expensive items to be shared.
He succeeded in October 1971, and the now ubiquitous e-mail was born. Tomlinson also developed the familiar e-mail address using the “@” symbol. Tomlinson claims he could not remember the content of that first e-mail, but as there was no communications expert to craft it for him, it’s likely to have been pretty banal.
The term “e-mail” was only coined in 1982, which also saw the first emoticon. Microsoft first released Outlook in 1997, the year it purchased Hotmail for an estimated $400 million—and Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks starred in You’ve got mail. E-mail had become well and truly mainstream.
“E-mail was immediately recognised as a great productivity tool and an excellent way to communicate cheaply and reliably,” notes Walter Penfold, managing director at Prefix Technologies. “I think it’s safe to say, though, that it has become the prisoner of its own success as volumes have increased and spam has come to clog our inboxes.”
The Radicati Group estimated in 2010 that some 294 billion e-mail messages are sent each day. Of these, says Internet statistics website Pingdom.com, around 89% is spam. Ninety percent of that spam is in English, down from 96%, showing that spam is internationalising fast! Eighty-eight percent of all spam comes from spam botnets or networks of computers compromised by viruses.
“Some trend watchers feel that e-mail is actually on the way out, but I am of the opinion that the qualities that make it so useful haven’t disappeared,” Penfold says. “It’s particularly useful as a business communication tool, accessible from virtually any device that has Internet access: phones, tablets and computers. Social networks have similar reach but do not have the integrity that e-mail has as a business communication tool. In fact e-mail was the original social network as it ‘invented’ the concept of direct interaction with a large number of people and data sharing. And unlike social networks, nobody owns e-mail technology: it’s a totally open protocol which allows it to be a truly universal platform. E-mails also have legal force.
“In addition, most Internet-based activities require an e-mail address for confirmation and verification processes. Facebook’s recently launched messaging service seeks to take e-mail to the next level by integrating it with instant messaging—it’s ‘not an e-mail killer’, as Mark Zuckerberg has been quick to point out.”
Penfold says that the growth of spam and other forms of digital communication mean that companies need to develop clear communication strategies that blend e-mail with other forms of communication, perhaps with social and/or instant messaging taking over some of the more routine intra-company communication requirements.
“For this reason, pMailer, South Africa’s home-brewed messaging platform, integrates both SMS and e-mail to allow companies to leverage both channels effectively. Inboxes are crowded and so competition for attention is fierce,” he says. “That is true of most forms of digital communication and the challenge will grow as more of the world comes online.”
“E-mail is going from strength to strength and will not die. What is will do, however, is evolve. Happy birthday—and the best is yet to come!” concludes Penfold.