Friday, 16 March 2018

Email: Don't Shoot The Messenger

Email, being an electronic version of physical mail is something we can all understand - it's familiar, easy to use and essential but not always appreciated ... indeed as yet another email lands in our bulging mailbox we might want to shoot the messenger. We must learn to love email again and not blame it for the problems we get asking it to do things it should never be asked to do.

The first networked email was sent between two computers in 1971 - Ray Tomlinson was just fooling around looking for something to use the network for and in so doing gave the Internet its first real application.

The real beauty of email is that anyone can message you if they have your email address - we don't all have to be on the same platform like Facebook or Whatsapp to message each other - we can use whatever email system we like - Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Zoho, Proton etc. Email is based on clearly defined international Internet protocols so that different systems can communicate with each other and the message will still get through. Better still ... I can use different email clients with most of these systems and even build my own email system and even do this with a £35 Raspberry PI if I wanted to. But wait, there's more ... using email I can send messages through time - using the same technologies as the early email systems I can send a message to you today and receive your reply. I've sent messages through time many times - its useful to use Telnet to manually craft SMTP to test email systems - something I've done many times with Microsoft Exchange for example when you want to reduce complexity to get a better diagnosis. It would probably be possible to use a computer from 40 years ago to interact with you today .... how many other things in digital technology are like this.

The open, mix and match, decentralised and distributed nature of email is a reminder of the Net and the web we lost but the Internet was born in a different environment than today - the young Net was open and trusting ... some might say naive by today's standards and this causes problems  today ... spam, phishing, viruses, denial of service attacks and the shear volume of email stresses not just our email systems but us as well ... its no wonder people want to shoot the messenger. There is no doubt that email is struggling to cope but don't shoot the messenger and don't throw the baby out with the bath water - we need to play nicely with the baby and protect it.

The problems with email today come from how we use it ... many of the extensions to email over the years have added functionality and made it more useful but stretched it beyond its original abilities - creating flaws and weaknesses ... not so much in email itself but in the systems that support it. There is little that can go wrong with a simple text message but there is little you can do with it to ... Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) really extended the capabilities of email but also extended what can be delivered to our computers ... along with different fonts, attached and embedded files came attached and embedded viruses and malware that exploited the weaknesses of our computers. Email is the lowest common denominator in modern communications but through its extensions has become the biggest common denominator in computer hacking. We can't turn the clock back with email extensions they are essential but we can use them wisely and make sure our computer systems themselves are secure. Protecting our email systems and computers goes a long way to keeping us safe but we need to add common sense too. Use email wisely - read emails properly - look under the surface attention and look at actual email addresses, file names and links that are under the display names  - in Gmail for instance if you hover the pointer over an email address, link or file it will reveal the actual link or address. Be suspicious of anything that is unsolicited and don't open attachments or click links without care and certainly don't open or display attachments or links automatically.

Email is a product of its time, the 1960s and1970s, while it is it is on-line it is asynchronous and more suited to batch operation and this is the best way to use it ... if you want synchronous, multi-way group discussion and collaboration in real-time using email will only cause you grief and you will want top shoot the messenger but its not the messengers fault its yours for choosing the wrong tool. For group discussion you are better off using on-line forums or social media and for group collaboration you are better off using cloud based collaborative systems like Google Apps or Zoho for example. For simple private one to one asynchronous messaging that you can process in your own time it is difficult to beat email. 

It is often said today that email is for old people but email seems ageless .. perhaps its immortal and who knows it may become cool as people become disillusioned with the plethora of fragmented walled garden closed systems of surveillance otherwise known as social networks. Email may become cool again but its not retro .... email never went away is is just taken for granted ... like all successful technologies it disappears into the fabric of life. Email is not the lowest common denominator but the essential common factor running through the fabric of modern life.

1 comment:

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