My 9/06/09 Missoulian column
E-mail has greatly evolved since the days of ARPANET and the first rudimentary messages sent between a few computer systems in the 1970s.
One improvement over the original methods of transferring mail between computer systems was the development of a consistent e-mail “header,” a normally invisible part of an e-mail that stores electronic data about the e-mail, such as information about where it originated, where it’s going, the route it took, etc.
Headers are part of software called SMTP – simple mail transfer protocol – that entered wide service in 1982 and is still the backbone protocol that delivers email these days.
Another significant improvement in e-mail is the ability to handle languages other than English, by using software called multipurpose Internet mail extensions types, introduced in the early 1990s. (Original e-mail systems only supported English.)
Currently, MIME types are kind of a stop-gap until sometime in the future, when all e-mail programs use Unicode, a standard that will support all world languages. MIME types also allow e-mail to handle modern amenities such as file attachments and styled text using the same language – HTML – that is used in Web pages to show colors and graphics.
And, these days, most modern mail servers have been secured to prevent unauthorized sending spam, but you wouldn’t know it with the levels of spam these days (almost 90 percent of all e-mail sent). Most spam is sent from mail servers set up just for that purpose – or PCs hijacked with malware – and is difficult to stop because of legal issues enforcing laws against spam (and the malware that often sends it) across international boundaries.
What’s the future of e-mail? With texting growing very popular, spam at an all time high and the number of people using e-mail leveling off, it’s hard to say, I don’t think e-mail won’t disappear anytime soon. Still, perhaps in another 40 years, we’ll hear: “Hey, Grandpa, what was it like to send e-mail?”