Texting, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter – we have dozens of ways to pass a message from one user to the next, and yet we keep coming back to email. Why? According to the man who sent the first one, because there’s still nothing quite like it.
Possibly the most revealing statement that can be made about the power and perseverence of email is that – unlike almost everything else in the technology industry – how we use it has remained virtually unchanged for more than 40 years.
According to the Radicati Group, 144.8 billion emails are sent every day, and that number is projected to rise to 192.2 billion in 2016. There are about 3.4 billion email accounts worldwide, Radicati said, with three-quarters owned by individual consumers.
The youngest users of email, however, have an enormous number of different methods to choose from to communicate – and many of them prefer these methods for most communications.
This, in turn, has prompted to some to wonder whether email is a dinosaur, among them young people who say they actually mean “Facebook” when they say “email”. In 2010, comScore kicked off a fuss by noting that Web email use had dropped 59% among teens. So why would anyone continue to use email in the age of social media?
“Because none of them really fill the space that email serves, which is you have a specific audience,” answers Ray Tomlinson, a principal engineer at BBN Technologies and the so-called “father of email.”
“A lot [of the alternatives] are like a billboard, with limited utility – you put these things on the billboard, and if they choose to they [your audience] can look and see it.”
“But email has the time difference – that is, you send it now, you read it later – you don’t have to have someone sitting there and ready to respond like you do with instant messaging to make it work and make it effective,” Tomlinson explains. “You can use instant messaging that way, but if they’re not there, nothing happens, and you gotta remember that there may be a message coming back to you and go back to the IM client and look for the response.”
The Birth Of Email
In 1971 Tomlinson worked as an engineer for Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), a contractor that had been assigned to develop ARPANET, a communication network that would allow scientists and researchers to share each other’s computer resources.
In the fall of 1971, Tomlinson sent the first network email, using the SNDMSG program that ran on the TENEX time-sharing program for Digital PDP-10 computers. Email on a single computer had existed since the early 1960s, the equivalent of a digital post-it note that could be left to another user. But Tomlinson tweaked the CPYNET file transfer program, then appended it to SNDMSG. That gave one user the power to send a message to another on a remote machine, and email was born.
The first email message has been lost to history; Tomlinson tells ReadWriteWeb that it was one of a number of “entirely forgettable” test messages. But that first email message, sent from one machine physically sitting next to another, functioned as a sort of “hello world” message explaining that, well, network email was up and running. The response was low-key.
“I don’t recall any actual replies” to the first email, Tomlinson says. “I did get some comments from people in the hall.”
Tomlinson was also the first person to use the now ubiquitous “@” symbol – a no-brainer, as it explained that a user was “at” a given host, Tomlinson said. There was one glitch, however: “I was later reminded that the Multics time-sharing system used the @ sign as its line-erase character. This caused a fair amount of grief in that community of users,” he notes on his own website.
Email began to take hold as both a cultural and a technical phenomenon in 1972, when the next release of TENEX was shipped – on magnetic tape via snail mail – to some 15 other sites scattered around the country. Users could then send messages back and forth. As each site came online, email’s utility increased, Tomlinson recalls.
Even back then, though, email was used in much the same way it is now.
“I think it was mostly used as a replacement for telephone calls,” Tomlinson says. “You got a more immediate response. With time zone differences you didn’t have to have someone there to receive the call.”