40 Years of Email

Email and my own working life have been closely intertwined. I started using email in 1983 and over the years I have used more than three dozen different systems and sent thousands of messages and probably deleted millions of questionable ones too. So I thought I would put together some important milestones of my own usage, mapped against some significant historical email developments and show you how email has changed from those early days.

For the first 15 or so years, email use in business was a rarity. Few companies had any external connectivity, which meant users had to connect via modems back to the main office. Now we take internet and Wifi for granted.

  • 1983: Started using both MCIMail, one of the first global systems that was available to the public (the Internet was not yet available to the average worker) and a conferencing system called EIES. One job I had back then was to write automated scripts for processing messages between the two at a small software firm.
  • 1984: At an insurance company, I used an IBM mainframe email product called DISOSS for internal communications.
  • 1986: Used 3Com’s 3+Mail for internal communications at PC Week. This was one of the early LAN-based email programs. We thought we were hot stuff because we could hook up our remote offices around the country to it, something now taken for granted.
  • 1987: Wrote my first column for PC Week about hotels, modems, and email. Today the problem still remains, just replace Wifi and VPNs for the modems.
  • 1988: Managed my first remote team with editors reporting to me from California, Denver, Texas and other places. Email connectivity made this all possible.
  • 1989: Covered the launch of Lotus Notes, one of the first collaborative software tools, and lobbied Ziff Davis, where I worked, to start using it in place of 3+. They eventually did a few years’ later. Compuserve and MCIMail begin offering Internet gateways to their users on an experimental basis.
  • 1990: I started Network Computing magazine, where we routinely used Internet email addresses for our writers in their bylines. We used Network Courier LAN-based email, which was the precursor to Microsoft Exchange and Outlook. This was also my first entry into Internet-based email: we were able to communicate with anyone using a gateway that was maintained by UCLA.
  • 1991: Began to chart ways to send emails between two formerly disparate  systems, using various gateways. The rise of Soft-Switch, which at its height could connect more than 50 different systems. They were eventually acquired by Lotus. Again, something taken for granted now. Also the year that Phil Zimmermann released PGP for email encryption. To get around US security laws, he soon published its source code as a printed book.
  • 1992: I was one of the first wireless email users of a product called RadioMail, which File:RadioMail HP100 Setup circa 1995.jpg - Wikimedia Commonseventually became the BlackBerry. It worked with a one-pound radio and a one pound HP palmtop.
  • 1993: Obtained my first Internet domain name, strom.com, for free from Network Solutions by requesting it from them via email. Before then, private businesses couldn’t really become masters of their own domains easily.
  • 1994: Groupware was the big deal back then, and Novell’s Groupwise was one of the best. Too bad that it withered away, along with the rest of Novell. This was also the year that AOL began offering an Internet gateway so its users could communicate with each other. It was far from perfect: for example, the early Mac AOL clients couldn’t read attachments from Internet senders.
  • 1995: Began the first of a series of weekly email newsletters called Web Informantusing a collection of Unix scripts. Still writing them, using a hosted Mailman server by Pair.
  • 1996: Experimented with Intermind’s push technology for notifications instead of sending emails for my newsletter. Didn’t last very long. Push pooped out quickly.
  • 1997: Gave up my laptop and used borrowed computers when traveling. That didn’t last very long either. Did have the very early smartphone from AT&T that used broadband (well, it wasn’t all that broad) cellular data called CDPD, the precursor to what we all use today on our phones. This was the year that Apple acquired NeXT and incorporated its email software into various Apple operating systems.
  • 1998: This was an important year for me and was the year that I co-wrote my email book with Marshall Rose, the inventor of the POP protocols. The book covered the more popular email programs at the time, which included Lotus cc:Mail (extinct), Netscape Messenger (extinct but replaced by Thunderbird you could say), Eudora Pro (still very much alive with this open source project),  Compuserve (not extinct but should be), AOL (ditto), and Microsoft’s Outlook Express (which has gone through various evolutions and still exists with its Office/365 products). Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame and an early email user, wrote our forward to our book. Out of that research is this Web page that I haven’t touched since then that shows the state of email encryption interoperability. Luckily, it has gotten better, sort of.
  • 2001: Was a regular user of Lotus Notes, which by then had been purchased by IBM, while working back at CMP.
  • 2002: Wrote about Michael Dell’s bandwidth separation anxiety here, probably one of the first of many popular instances of cutting off email.
  • 2004: At the annual VIP economic forum love fest gathering in Davos, Bill Gates proclaimed: “Two years from now, spam will be solved.” Right. Not even close on that one Bill.
  • 2005: Began using Mozilla’s ThunderBird as my regular email client. Here is a story about the trials then.
  • 2006: Switched hosting my various email domains over to Google Apps. For free. Began using Gmail as my regular email client, although it wouldn’t talk IMAP for another year. Also the year that the concept of “email inbox zero” was introduced.
  • 2008: Reminisced about ten years after my email book in my post here. Vint Cerf wrote this then too about ten years of using the Internet.
  • 2009: First of many “email is dead” articles in WSJ and elsewhere analyzed here.
  • 2011: The latest in a series of days without email proposed to make some obscure point.
  • 2017: Better email authentication protocols (DKIM, SPF, DMARC) come into wider use. As I wrote about at the time, becoming master of your email domain is incredibly difficult to implement, still true to this day.
  • 2018: IBM sells off Lotus Notes to an Indian conglomerate. That link will take you to why Notes was so significant in its heyday.
  • 2019-2022: Helm is released, an interesting dedicated email server appliance. It closed its doors at the end of 2022, victim to supply chain issues and IMHO, a bad collection of features.
  • 2022: Google begins charging me for my domain for the first time since I began using their email service.
  • 2023: Yes, I still try to have less than ten messages at the end of each day in my inbox. Encrypted email remains for the most part ignored by the general public, even as phishing continues to rise. Some things never change.

12 thoughts on “40 Years of Email

  1. “Email has been very very good to me” 🙂 – and it’s been an honor to work with such wonderful folks like David over these 3 decades. Half of my startup life has been involved with email in one way or another. I chuckle every time someone tells me “email is dead” – a rather frequent occurrence. Maybe they’re [finally] right? Doubtful.

    It is disappointing that as a community, we’ve been unable to fix email’s remaining flaws (no authoritative identity model, no real-time/presence modes, a UI which hasn’t changed much in a few decades, …) Having said that, email has been, and still is, a great tool. I’m happy to have had the privilege of being slightly involved.

    Thanks, David for this great post!

  2. In the ’80s I was part of the launch of HP Deskmanager, the email component of HP’s minicomputer-based Office Automation suite (remember OA?). In the ’90s I worked for cc:Mail, the most popular LAN-based email system. Today I use Gmail. You rightly state that email has changed from the early days, but it’s also remarkable just how much has remained the same. After 40 years of using email, I’d be forever grateful if someone could tell me once and for all how to get less of it.

  3. Shame that Apple hasn’t done a PC version of Messenger, have it complete with WhasApp and Telegram by adding third party apps and easily add attachments.

  4. I started using email in 1973. I was a SRI-AI in the 70s. I used a program called RD that was a TECO hack done by Larry Roberts who was the guy who started the Arpanet.
    Then I iused MM by Michael McMahon a Brilliant MIT dropout who worked for me for a while. Then Eudora for quite a while. I use Apple Mail now.

  5. Great trip down memory lane. No story about email is complete though without mentioning hotmail and juno who made email free and accessible to the masses.

  6. David, While still working in Honeywell Information System’s Level 6 minicomputer division, I got to use its proprietary email system. Management and engineering were both dead set against developing a hardware/software to work with the now standard SMTP/POP, but I led a successful special project for the Level 6 email to communicate with the corporation’s own proprietary Telex network. These were signs that Honeywell’s future selling proprietary computers was not bright, and I left to work on my own, having had TWO IBM-compatible computers on my desk as a project manager. I assembled my own 8MHz AT-compatible from a kit, adding one of the first NEC monitors to have VGA in glorious color.

    When you were at PCWeek and I was writing PC Week articles in the ’90s, we exchanged emails via MCI Mail and a dialup here. Then, Charter (now Spectrum) came to town with broadband internet and I switched to its charter.net email. I finally got a gmail account, which I prefer, but my charter.net email account, laced with much spam every day, is still in use because it is tied to some other internet accounts. Email has been only a tool for me, whereas it has been a big part of your professional career.

  7. Thanks everyone for your own memories, keep em coming! Here is one from Mark Lillie:
    The first E-mail I remember using in any personal way was AOL. I remember sending a support e-mail to a company in Australia and getting a reply in a half hour. I was stunned.

    When I got to Blue Cross Blue Shield, I had already deployed Groupwise at a previous company and BCBS used Memo on the IBM mainframe. No one outside of the IT department used any e-mail. A senior vice president at BCBS had previously been at the company I came from and had used Groupwise, Once I arrived, recruited from the other company, he insisted on having it to communicate with the subsidiary we came from. One user, one gateway over a T1 line back to the subsidiary. With the gateway already set up, I began adding people that requested it as word spread. Then a gateway came out ( over SNA as I recall ) from Groupwise to Memo. Once I hooked that up, no one had to use the cludgy Memo. Soon we had hundreds of users all over the company and it helped to put Network Services on the map.

  8. What a great trip down memory lane! I had forgotten the fun and frustration of walking around the Las Vegas convention center trying to connect my RadioMail! But I still use the slogan I remember from them: “Wherever you go, there’s your mail.”

    FWIW, my first “email” was the proprietary one-line messaging system in Atex, which enabled communications only among news reporters and editors in one newsroom. I used it at a daily newspaper in the 1970s and then at CMP after switching to there in the early 1980s. Today azzara.com is hosted by Google but I’m an Apple Mail desktop client (via IMAP) and iPhone Gmail app user.

  9. Thanks Mike, Here is another Atex story from Dan Gillmor. I also used them when I was at PC Week back in the late 1980s.

    David, Great chronology!

    One of journalism’s most notable failures to see the future was
    tangential to this: The Atex publishing system had an instant messenger
    that was fundamental to the workings of the newspapers where I used it.
    But no one — including me — even considered the potential of making it
    into a broader offering, even after everything moved to PCs and off of
    dumb terminals.

  10. David, I am enjoying the chronology and the comments. I have always liked the notion that “hindsight is 50/50”. So much of the history of messaging systems were dictated by other technology choices and legacy systems that affected solving the core application’s shortcomings. Good enough capabilities became the default (See Eric Hahn’s comments for a few persistent challenges)

    I think an additional business impact was the many revenue models employed by various suppliers became unsustainable over time, resulting in a lack of investment in their offerings.

    Per the last point in the chronology, encrypted email/file/messaging could be another “walk down memory lane”!

    Best to all!

  11. It’s been an amazing ride and a pleasure spending it with quality smart folks like you David! Your analysis of industry trends and technology educated me throughout my career. I appreciate that you are still contributing your perspective. A thank you and a virtual hug.

  12. When I was working at the old Manufacturers Hanover Trust (=> Chemical Bank => Chase Manhattan Bank => JPMorganChase), we started testing Comet by Computer Corporation of America in 1979, and then adopted it as our corporate email system in 1980, which was my first email address. Ran on a worldwide X.25 system.

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