Email: The Internet’s First and Last Killer App

I’m dating myself here, but I remember a time when AOL was obviously going to replace email (or at least that’s what the pundits and day traders told us). Standard Internet email was clearly too anarchic, uncontrolled, and uncommercial to be suitable for real business. Now that email was escaping the ivory towers of academia, it had to be owned and managed by a corporation. That…didn’t happen.

A few years later, MySpace was obviously going to replace email. Email was only used by old fogies like myself. Anyone under 18 didn’t send or read email; and as teenagers grew up, graduated from college, and joined the work force, email was going to fade away much like Usenet news before it. That also…didn’t happen.

MySpace sold itself to Rupert Murdoch and promptly imploded. The teenagers who made MySpace the new hotness rapidly defected to upstart Facebook. And for a few years the same talking heads who had told us AOL and MySpace were going to replace email were now saying that Facebook was going to replace email. Email had become choked with spam and thus useless. Clearly Facebook was the wave of the future. By this point the articles and blog posts were beginning to sound a little familiar, as if someone had just done s/MySpace/Facebook and rerun the same pieces. In any case, once again that…didn’t happen.

That’s only a brief selection of “email killers” that have been sold to us over the last two decades. MSN, Twitter, text messages, YouTube, Skype, and more have all been heralded as email replacements. I’d lay good money that email will outlast all of them. By this point it should be obvious that email is here to stay. While SMTP, POP, IMAP, DNS, MX records, and even TCP itself are imperfect, they hit a real sweet spot. They are more than good enough to solve the fundamental problem of enabling people to communicate asynchronously with written messages without being locked into any one network or provider.

The protocols have evolved over time. Security has become vastly more important. More connections are encrypted than ever before (and even more should be). Authentication and authorization are enforced at most entry points to the network, which alleviates some of the more casual spamming and forgery problems. Unicode has mostly replaced ASCII and other national character sets. Attachments, MIME, and multipart messages were added before some of the people reading this were born. More changes are likely in the future.

Nonetheless, the basic architecture of email communication has remained remarkably consistent for more than 30 years and seems likely to continue for at least another 30. People need email, and they need to send it to other people who don’t use the same ISP or service they do. No single service, no single website, can hope to replace it.

tags: , ,

Get the O’Reilly Web Platform Newsletter

Stay informed. Receive weekly insight from industry insiders—plus exclusive content and offers.