Messaging and e-mail: Night shift missives to spam deluge

Once upon a time, there wasn’t any e-mail. There was no spam, no bad jokes, no e-mail newsletters and no emoticons :-(What there was, up until the early 1960s, was nothing.

Then appeared the first signs of life. Mainframe computers were run by dozens of operators, working around the clock, normally against some sort of time sharing arrangement.

Mailboxes were created so that one shift could leave messages for the next.

Terminals could be used to access these machines, and thus you could read a mail message on one terminal that was created on another.

However, it wasn’t e-mail — the message never left the one single computer.

ARPANet (Advanced Research Projects Agency) was the name given to the early Internet. It was not built as a communications platform, but rather as a resource sharing mechanism. However, from day one, users were hacking the system to send each other messages.

In 1971 a developer called Ray Tomlinson from Bolt Beranek and Newman (BNN) developed the first e-mail protocol and application — the protocol was called CPYNET and the applications SNDMSG — for sending messages, and READMAIL for reading messages. Tomlinson tested his technology on two machines not connected to the Internet.

Tomlinson should perhaps be the most famous name in the history of the Internet — as he is responsible for a most significant decision.

By sending mail from one computer to another, he had to separate the name of the individual from the name of the computer — how?

Tomlinson picked the @ symbol.

That same year the File Transfer Protocol for the Internet was being finalised.

The author, Abhay Bhushan, came across Tomlinson’s work and it was piggybacked onto FTP. The result — e-mail was born. Within one year, three-quarters of all traffic on ARPANET was e-mail.

Today the NSW Department of Information Technology and Management says each employee in the workforce sends an average 20 e-mails a day and receives 30.

According to Gartner, e-mail has become a mature technology. Ken Dulaney, vice president and analyst with Gartner, sees e-mail as “a fully developed technology”, but with one weakness — HTML.

“HTML is a weak standard for e-mail,” Dulaney says. “What users need, is push e-mail which is suited to offline mode. This offline mode operates like online when the network is available and offline when it isn’t. HTML for reading e-mail is going to die out.”

It is a major issue — especially with regard to new formal communication applications — such as Annual Reports. Companies are required to send annual reports to shareholders, and sending via the post is expensive — much better to send via e-mail.

However, when sending e-mail content that is likely to be read offline, your options are limited to document attachments — such as PDF — large, unwieldy and unloved by firewalls.

HTML depends on calls back to a server, so offline critical content — such as branding, may be missing.

Companies, such as Mobular Technologies in the US, are working now on methods to deliver content-rich e-mail without attachments, that work online and off.

However, the biggest issues for e-mail going forward are not technology-centric — but social — in particular spam and security.

Spam dates back to the late 1970s — about the time Computerworld was born. The personal computing era was opening up.

Bulletin Boards had just been introduced and nerd culture was developing.

Spam, named after a Monty Python skit, was a form of attack — you would target someone’s e-mail box with so many messages that they could not get mail from anyone else.

Today, Spam refers to unsolicited e-mail and according to Gartner, accounts for 25 per cent of all e-mail worldwide.

Spam is such a problem it has become an issue for governments — for instance under California Assembly Bill 1629, fines of up to $25,000 a day can be levied on organisations that send unsolicited e-mail.

In Australia, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Senator Alston requested an inquiry into spam in February 2002.

The National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) published its report in April 2003 called — Spam.

The report found Spam represents at least 20 per cent of all e-mail and is increasing.

“Spam is creating significant productivity costs for business and the community, threatening IT systems and network integrity and significantly increasing the task faced by regulatory authorities because of its content,” the report says.

Key recommendations include legislation prohibiting unsolicited e-mail and imposing appropriate penalties — although some legal experts think all the required legislation is already in place.

Noric Dilanchian, Managing Partner of Dilanchian Lawyers and Consulting, worked with NOIE on the spam report.

“There is enough law out there to get spammers,” opines Dilanchian. “What it will take is the will of the regulating authorities.”

Second issue for e-mail is security and here e-mail poses two distinct risks.

One, e-mail has become a favourite host for viruses that can contaminate an enterprise system.

Two, e-mail carries a vicarious legal risk — that of employees who can misuse e-mail and create waste, loss and legal issues.

While virus control can be mostly managed through the application of technology, the legal risk associated with e-mail misuse is less straightforward.

“People don’t think, are not great writers, and don’t check their work,” Dilanchian says. “There is not one litigation case I am involved in now that does not have an e-mail either for or against us.”

The advent of e-mail has coincided with the demise of secretaries and personal assistants. “Secretaries used to be highly trained — not just as typists,” Dilanchian says, “they checked work and provided a second opinion.”

“Now each individual has a gun and they invariably shoot someone else, shoot themselves or do both.”

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More about ADVENTDepartment of Information TechnologyGartnerMobular TechnologiesNational Office for the Information EconomyNetwork IntegrityNewmanNOIE

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