Electronic mail, or e-mail, as it is known to its many fans, has been around for over two decades. Before 1990, it was mostly used in academia. During the 1990s, it became known to the public at large and grew exponentially to the point where the number of e-mails sent per day now is vastly more than the number of snail mail (i.e., paper) letters. E-mail, like most other forms of communication, has its own conventions and styles. In particular, it is very informal and has a low threshold of use. People who would never dream of calling up or even writing a letter to a Very Important Person do not hesitate for a second to send a sloppily-written e-mail.
E-mail is full of jargon such as BTW (By The Way), ROTFL (Rolling On The Floor Laughing), anIMHO (In My Humble Opinion). Many people also use little ASCII symbols called smiley’s or emoticons in their e-mail.
The first e-mail systems simply consisted of file transfer protocols, with the convention that the first line of each message (i.e., file) contained the recipient's address. As time went on, the limitations of this approach became more obvious.
Some of the complaints were as follows:
1. Sending a message to a group of people was inconvenient. Managers often need this facility to send memos to all their subordinates.
2. Messages had no internal structure, making computer processing difficult. For example, if a forwarded message was included in the body of another message, extracting the forwarded part from the received message was difficult.
3. The originator (sender) never knew if a message arrived or not.
4. If someone was planning to be away on business for several weeks and wanted all incoming e-mail to be handled by his secretary, this was not easy to arrange.
5. The user interface was poorly integrated with the transmission system requiring users first to edit a file, then leave the editor and invoke the file transfer program.
6. It was not possible to create and send messages containing a mixture of text, drawings, facsimile, and voice.
As experience was gained, more elaborate e-mail systems were proposed. In 1982, the ARPANET e-mail proposals were published as RFC 821 (transmission protocol) and RFC 822 (message format). Minor revisions, RFC 2821 and RFC 2822, have become Internet standards,but everyone still refers to Internet e-mail as RFC 822.
In 1984, CCITT drafted its X.400 recommendation. After two decades of competition, email systems based on RFC 822 are widely used, whereas those based on X.400 have disappeared. How a system hacked together by a handful of computer science graduate students beat an official international standard strongly backed by all the PTTs in the world, many governments, and a substantial part of the computer industry brings to mind the Biblical story of
David and Goliath.
The reason for RFC 822's success is not that it is so good, but that X.400 was so poorly designed and so complex that nobody could implement it well. Given a choice between a simpleminded, but working, RFC 822-based e-mail system and a supposedly truly wonderful, but nonworking, X.400 e-mail system, most organizations chose the former.