A Short History of Email's Future

Scarcely a year out of the past 30 have gone by without someone making radical predictions about the future of email.  A few have even been right.  Facebook has reopened the topic with predictions of how the new Facebook Messages product will shape email's future -- a scant five months after their COO predicted the death of email.  Both predictions echoed similar musings from decades past.

Predictions of the death of email go back to email's beginnings as an extension to the FTP program.  This ugly hack, which allowed researchers on perhaps dozens of machines to send each other messages, was widely seen as a scandalous waste of expensive resources, and more than a few system managers expected to stamp it out.  They were wrong.  And although I've devoted nearly my entire career to email, I blush to admit that my first assessment of it, in 1978, was that it was a useless toy.  I was wrong.  (In my defense I will point out that our campus' single computer wasn't on a network, and all the terminals were in a single room, so email was no more useful than another new high-tech product, the post-it note.)  In the following years, I've probably heard dozens of "death of email" predictions before Facebook's.  They were all wrong.

Spam, everyone's favorite email villain, made its debut in the 1970's as well, and although it didn't become a major problem until much later, some technologists immediately went to work to "fix the problem."  Most of them expected quick success.  They were wrong. A few, like Bill Gates 20 years later, were bold enough to predict the complete eradication of spam by a date certain.  They were very wrong.

In a related topic, hundreds of technologists and privacy advocates have predicted that the widespread use of encryption would soon make email more private and secure.  But people seem to want privacy at any price, as long as it's free.  If it requires a single extra step, they tend to reject it.  The encryption-boosters were wrong.

Another recurring prediction has been the unification of email with other kinds of tools.  In 1982 I built a system known as BAGS, which integrated email, bulletin boards, and calendaring software.  The bulletin boards fit in very nicely, while the calendaring software did not.  I was wrong.  Years later, with RSS, voice mail, and fax seamlessly integrated into my mail reader, I still haven't seen good integration of calendars or instant messaging.  This bodes well for some of Facebook's plans, as the heart of Facebook is multiple RSS-like message streams.  But if they expect to be able to integrate too many other things into their mail interface, they're wrong.

I spent roughly 9 years working on my greatest success, multimedia mail.  But I got a lot of it wrong.  In the late 1980's I built an open source multimedia mail reader -- coincidentally also named Messages -- and expected the world to beat a path to my door.  I was wrong, but at least it was a mistake that led to MIME.  And although MIME seemed like the biggest revolution in the history of email, it only succeeded because it was designed to be evolutionary.

I also expected to transform email with what I called "active messages" -- messages containing programs in a restricted, safe language, to be executed when viewed.  I developed two such languages, and demonstrated some remarkable applications, but I completely missed what the emerging Web was doing to the idea.  Email that contains a web link can do almost anything an active message can do, so there's little appetite for developing an active messaging infrastructure.  I was wrong.

Predicting the future is hard.  Even successful predictions tend to be partial.  When people asked why I was working so hard to create multimedia email, I used to say, "Some day I'll have grandchildren, and I want to get cute pictures by email."  Most people laughed, and they were wrong.  But I expected my daughters to scan printed photos, never anticipating cheap digital cameras.  And I certainly didn't expect that magic first emailed picture to be a sonogram of a pair of zygotes, just a few days after in vitro fertilization and implantation.  (Cute pictures were still 8 months away.)  I wasn't exactly wrong, but it wasn't what I expected, either.

So, I trust you'll pardon my cynicism when I hear about the next revolution in email.  What I've seen, for over 30 years now, is the gradual evolution and expansion of email's capabilities, its reach, and yes, its flaws.  Facebook may well contribute to the next steps in that evolution, and I look forward to their innovations, but I don't expect any revolutions.

Of course, I may be wrong.

And if you didn't already guess what the pictures were- they are the long-anticipated first emailed picture of my granddaughters -- possibly the greatest anticlimax of all time.  This is what I worked 8 years, and then waited 16 more years, to receive (above and below):

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