Imagine a world without email – taking a look at the roots of email following the sad passing of its celebrated inventor


Every now and then a piece of technology comes along that intrinsically alters our way of life and goes on to permeate pretty much every aspect of society. Air travel, television and telephones are all examples but I want to spend a few minutes talking about email.

Not only because it’s part of my job but also because this week saw the sad passing of Ray Tomlinson – the man lauded as the inventor or email – and I want to take a few minutes to consider the impact that one man’s invention has had on our personal and professional lives.

Email is huge. As marketers we say it’s the most powerful channel and there are plenty of numbers out there to back this claim up. However, it’s only the most rewarding channel because it’s embraced so heavily by everyone. How many people don’t have a single email address? How many people have more than one?

What’s more, email plays an important role in business and in the B2B marketplace – so much so that it’s not unusual to receive an email from  someone sitting in the same office as you – sometimes they’re even sitting next to you (I admit it, I’ve done it a few times). There are many benefits to email over other forms of communication – it’s free, it’s (practically) instantaneous and you can keep a record of what you’ve sent and received – so you can understand why it’s so widely adopted.

From a marketer’s perspective it’s incredible because it’s so measurable. Clicks, open rates, conversion are all easily monitored and tinkered with. It means we know what levers we’re pulling and what those levers do.

So yes, email’s pretty successful and it’s here to stay. However, it’s difficult to claim that without Ray Tomlinson’s efforts email would not exist. With the advent of the internet (Ray’s original e-mail was based on ARPANET, the internet’s kind-of predecessor) similar forms of communication would have quickly developed – the potential is obvious.

No, Ray Tomlinson’s legacy isn’t instantaneous electronic communication as a whole. Ray’s legacy is having such an integral part in shaping the nuances and characteristics of the email that we all know and love.

Email

Ray Tomlinson is responsible for all our emails containing @

e-mail on ARPANET

Up until the early 70s you could only send ‘mail’ to users on the same machine but the development of ARPANET by the US Government changed things.

So it was that in 1971 a 25-year-old software engineer called Ray Tomlinson implemented a system that allowed messages to be sent between different users on different computers.  The first e-mail was sent (note the hyphen) on two Digital PDP-10 computers, standing side by side.

It was called e-mail (note the hyphen) and Ray used the (until then barely used) ‘@’ symbol to indicate that the recipient was at a different location than where the message came from. In that way the e-mails used a person’s name, then @, followed by the computer they were sitting at.

The email address was born.

I don’t think that at that point he could have conceived how much impact his work would have. In that one move he plucked the lowly @ symbol from obscurity and thrust it into the mainstream.

What’s astonishing is that Ray did it as a side project and because he didn’t think what he was doing was particularly momentous, years later he couldn’t remember the content of his first successful test email.

Of course from that point email went from strength until it became the goliath of communication it is today.

For anyone interested I’ve pulled together a short timeline of key events in the history of email.

1971 – first e-mail sent on ARPANET system
1977 – RFC 733 proposed as a format for sending email
1977 – US Postal Service begins to see email as a potential threat of mail volumes
1978 – Gary Thuerk sends first commercial email to nearly 400 ARPANET users
1980s – Term Spam adopted by internet users to represent unsolicited messages
(Check out my blog on this for more)
1982 – SMTP introduced
1989 – CompuServe provides e-mail services to its subscribers
1990s – HTML email is introduced
1991 – Hotmail launched the first free web-based mail service
1992 – First smartphone introduced
1995 – AOL send out millions of start-up discs to home across the world to attract signups
1997 – Yahoo! Introduces Yahoo mail
1997 – Microsoft outlook 97 released
1998 Data Protection Act updated to include a provision that email marketing include opt-out
1998 – Influx of unsolicited mail sent across the internet
1998 – ‘You’ve Got Mail‘ premiers at the box office
2003 – CAN-SPAM act introduced
2004 – SPF authentication
2007 – Google make Gmail available to the public worldwide
2010  – Spam represents 88% – 91% of all email received
2011 – e-mail changes to email
2011 – Apple sells more than 100 million iPhones
2013 – DMARC standard introduced
2014 – CASL introduced
2016 –  What’s next for email?

Ray Tomlinson is barely known outside the digital marketing industry. He’s not a household name like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Zuckerberg and that’s because he never benefited from his breakthrough. He never founded a company, launched a new product or had much to do with the world of email when it exploded. He didn’t even own a mobile phone.

The one thing that Ray regretted about his role in the creation of email was that he didn’t foresee the need to combat Spam. According to The Wall Street Journal he once told colleagues he wished he’d included a means of requiring senders’ identities to be authenticated, deterring spam and fraud.

Evidently with only two computers communicating with each other in that early trial the possibility of the channel being abused didn’t occur to him.

However, as we know fraud and Spam are serious problems in today’s world which is where deliverability comes into it and why I feel Ray’s legacy is in good hands.

ISPs are taking ever more stringent steps to protecting their users from receiving mail they don’t want to and brands are realising they need to work with the ISPs to get the best results – for themselves and their customers.

Protecting the inbox is critical for the survival of email and deliverability is the method brands need to use to ensure they aren’t completely cut out of the game.

Experian Marketing Services is the leading global provider of customer insights, data quality and cross-channel marketing. We help organisations intelligently interact with today’s empowered and hyper-connected consumers.

By helping marketers identify best customers, find more, and then coordinate seamless and intelligent interactions across the most appropriate channels, Experian Marketing Services can deepen customer loyalty, strengthen brand advocacy and maximise profits.