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The History and Evolution of Email

We’d all seen the bomb – a fiery mushroomed column of mortality, destructive power that could kill the dead. Awe and hysteria born from the ashes of the Second World War led to the Cold War, and in turn a need to protect messaging and communication in case such a nuke ever hit home. Indeed, there is strength in number, or rather, in networked distribution, on many levels. From these beginnings, adaptations of the first digital communication technologies emerged, connecting 4 western universities and laying the foundation for the age of telecommunication.

Email, as a means of electronically sending messages between two people, is said to have began at MIT in the 1960s. The system was crude, and basically amounted to different users leaving notes for each other stored on the same shared computer. This was a precursor to today’s method of sending an email across a network, which, incidentally, was created not too much later.

The First Network Email

The backbone of our current email system began with ARPANET, near the end of 1971, by Ray Tomlinson, an ARPANET contractor working for Bolk Beranek and Newman. ARPANET was the network created by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the United States Department of Defense during the Cold War. Tomlinson’s goal was to take his existing basic messaging system, SNGMSG, and take it to the next logical evolution, indicating for a given message which user was at which of the network’s computers.

At its core, email isn’t too different from regular mail. When you send a letter to someone, you indicate two things on the outside in order to get it where you want it to go: the name of the intended recipient, and the presumed current location of said recipient. Tomlinson came up with an elegant way of designating these two parts with the adoption of the @ symbol. His system, familiar to all of us now, identifies the recipient before the symbol, the location after. While the location referred to a particular computer at the time, the location now refers to the domain at which a mail server is hosted, a bit like sending a letter to an apartment building, and you leave it to the building administration to get the note to the right person. There’s a popular myth that the first email ever written was “qwertyuiop”, but actually was some forgettable test text that Tomlinson himself can’t remember.

Email Exchange Today

The principles behind the ARPANET extended to the Internet that followed. Messages are now sent via a local electronic mail server, which then relays to the intended destination using SMTP, or Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, read using Post Office Protocol (POP) or Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) which access the mail server that received the message. Many companies have local mail servers of this kind, which manage the incoming and outgoing messages workers send and receive internally or from outside their network. The next step, which many companies have started to take, uses services like Microsoft Exchange Hosting. While local mail servers get the basic job done, numerous factors make hosting a mail server off-site a safer option. A hosted exchange service, in short, acts as an intermediary between senders outside the network and those within, offering an added layer of protection to catch SPAM, viruses, and other junk or dangerous email. Also, the infrastructures of the kinds of companies that offer a hosted exchange service, for instance, Microsoft Sharepoint Hosting allow pretty much guaranteed uptime and security over a cloud-computing network, far more stable than a company’s local mailserver. No offense to affected IT workers! It’s nice to know that in the event of a robbery, fire, or anything else horrible, that stolen or destroyed equipment doesn’t mean lost data.

The Future

One possible direction for email could be towards using XMPP instead of SMTP. Anarchogeek explains the situation well, basically that instant messenger services use a means of transferring information that is highly permission-based (because of invited friends), usually resulting in less junk and more quick and pure communication. There are critical mass issues to overcome in making a transition away from something as prevalent and accepted as SMTP, but XMPP could very well be the next step in electronic mail.

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