Skip to content

Email looking good in its 50s

Email as we know it has just had its 50th birthday. The man who put the ‘@’ in email was the late Ray Tomlinson, a programmer on ARPANET, the forerunner to the internet at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Tomlinson said the first email would have been sent to himself, and was probably just ‘QWERTYUIOP’.

A standard for essentials such as ‘to’ and ‘from’ fields, and the ability to forward emails, was developed a couple of years later, although email was of course only available within networks, or between connected ones. In a way, this was just text messaging, and there are alternative claims to the ‘invention’ of email as we know it, most notably from V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai, who developed an inter-office mail system for a dental school, which he called ‘EMAIL’, in 1978.

In 1979, CompuServe launched a dial-up online information service for consumers, which turned out to be surprisingly popular, thanks to the appeal of Tandy’s Model 100 computers in the US. Features of CompuServe included e-mail, a name trademarked as such, which gave users their own numeric identifier. This would eventually become its users’ internet email address (a number ‘@’ – I really must try to look up what mine was when I first started using the system in the early 1990s.

A standard called MIME in 1992 made email much more flexible, making it possible to include images, audio, and videos. CompuServe’s WYSIWYG editor introduced different fonts and colours. Then in 1996 one of the first popular web-based email services, HoTMaiL, was launched. This was not tied to a particular ISP, and adopted new HTML-based email formatting. It was bought by Microsoft in 1997.

Today, the world’s most-used email provider is GMail, which was initially created for internal use at Google. At its launch in 2004, a then-huge 1Gb of storage space was its big attraction. It now has over 1.7 billion users. Microsoft’s (Hotmail’s successor) is in third place, with the Chinese NetEase Mail separating the two.

GMail has popularised tabbed inboxes, threaded conversations and more, but many other applications have incorporated features like these, and email may well be one of the most mature technologies online. Indeed, so comfortable are most of us with the way we use email that we may not have taken advantage of more recent additions, such as different inbox setups, snoozing mail, scheduling mail and confidential modes.

In terms of marketing, email is very much alive and kicking. Indeed, with improved spam filtering for users and better use of personalisation by senders, its effectiveness may be greater than ever.