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A Brief History of Email

Jimson Lee

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This may feel like a mini-course in ancient history, but I am only going back 20 years.

Back in the mid 1980's during University, my email was a mcgill. ca address while my American associates had an “. edu" email address. Access to these systems was through a Telnet session at any of the school's terminals. From home, I could dial-in to a SLIP server with a 2400 baud modem, and get my email as long as I had a Telnet client.

Those who didn't go to College had access to a Freenet account, which was also accessible through Telnet.

When I graduated and had to pay for an Internet Service Provider, I accessed email through POP and SMTP with Outlook or Eudora for years until I needed the ability to access the web from anywhere in the world. IMAP helped bridge the gap as long as the mail client was setup on my work and home computer so all my mail, Inbox, Sent Items, and Drafts, were synchronized.

With the popularity of web based emails by the mid 1990's, the big 3 were MSN's Hotmail, Yahoo! and Google's Gmail. People would change or have multiple accounts as storage space was often the biggest headache. It wasn't long ago when 2 megabytes was the maximum storage space. Gmail was the first to offer 2 gigabytes of storage, and continuously growing.

Most web based email providers had the ability to download POP email, but your email “from" or “reply-to" address was usually your web based email address. This is acceptable for personal use, but not for corporate use.

At a corporate level, Microsoft Exchange combined with the Outlook client was extremely popular, and is still popular today. Exchange is a messaging and groupware server that uses IMAP as one of the many protocols to access email. It also has the Outlook Web Access feature which was more convenient than conventional web based email as it had your contacts, shared calendars and public folders.

Today, I still like using Outlook, as it offers a great “store and forward" mechanism: the ability to work off-line on my laptop. I can easily work in Draft mode on an airplane and connect to the Internet to synchronize my mailbox when back on land. Plus, my Contacts are synchronized with my Palm PDA or Blackberry wireless handheld device.

Sure, I could download my Yahoo or Gmail to my Outlook by using POP, but it wouldn't synchronize any changes. It also depends if my mail was deleted on the server after downloading, or stored on the server. Sorting email can be painfully slow with Yahoo compared to Gmail's lightning fast search algorithm, but you can't sort by file size, for example.

Now that Gmail supports IMAP, by combining it with Outlook, I combine the best of both worlds. There are some features of Outlook I cannot live without, and with the popularity of social networking, integration with LinkedIn or Facebook makes it more appealing.

There is a trend for personal email decreasing in favor of Instant Messaging and text messaging via cell phone. However, Email will always have a place in the corporate world.

Jimson Lee works as an Information Technology Consultant specializing in Infrastructure Management, Services & Security. Expertise includes: CRM and Help Desk Software .

He is also a contributing writer for My Personal CMO and BeSafe .


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