The Ongoing Evolution Of Email

While much of today’s IT infrastructure was created or invented, it’s often argued that email simply evolved. Webmail and POP/IMAP settings are relatively modern constructs, but email’s history dates back to 1972 and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mainframe computers required a method of communication that provided specific identifiers for each user, and contractor Ray Tomlinson came up with the idea of placing a person’s name and a computer’s name either side of the @ symbol. And so, from this humble beginning, email was born.
Of course, email wouldn’t have existed without the American military communications platform known as ARPANET. This internet precursor used the now familiar system of multiple connections to deliver messages and files as quickly as possible. However, messages between ARPANET staff gradually evolved from the purely professional to the highly personal, many years before the first commercial electronic mail packages made their debuts.
It was inevitable that the creation of the internet by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1991 would herald a revival in electronic mail, and this process was aided by the prior development of simple message transfer protocol. Known by its acronym of SMTP, this process standardized emails so that sender and recipient devices could both understand the contents. As more and more computers became internet enabled, emails were downloaded as soon as a program or webmail service was connected through telephone lines. Some ISPs would provide notifications about received messages on user homepages, as their accounts were connected.
Since the mid-1990s, email has changed remarkably little. The Noughties’ explosion in spam messaging has receded thanks to concerted efforts throughout the IT industry, and email remains a default method of communication that has largely replaced written documentation in many industries. More efficient than fax machines and more reliable than the postal service, email has survived predictions of its demise as a result of social media, the rise of instant messaging, and a new generation of corporate communication platforms such as Slack.
As was the case 20 years ago, email accounts continue to require a hosting service to manage the delivery and processing of messages. It’s common practice for web hosting companies like WestHost to provide email accounts linked to website addresses (also known as domain names), while cloud computing has accelerated the takeup of webmail accounts where users can log in from anywhere in the world providing they have the right credentials.
The rapid rollout of broadband internet and 4G networking has enabled email to become an ever-present element in our lives, continuing a process started by the BlackBerry revolution a decade ago. Email no longer awaits us in the office, but is now something that follows us home. This has created the ‘always-on’ culture criticized by many observers, although the evolution of email into a constant presence merely reflects society’s growing obsession with electronic communications – particularly social media.
Will email be with us 20 years from now? Incipient technologies like Facebook for Business and the aforementioned Slack may reduce in popularity, while written documents remain dominant among the legal and financial professions. Social media and messaging services like WhatsApp and Snapchat have largely replaced more casual email threads, and file sharing platforms such as Dropbox can accept file sizes and volumes that would defeat any network server. However, email’s unique blend of immediacy and formality should allow it to remain part of our professional and personal lives for many years to come.