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The rise and rule of the email client -part 1-

Tags: email client · first email · history of email clients

A quick look to the past brings hand-written letters to modern email clients into perspective

Let’s face it… we have come to a point where if something isn’t written down (either literally or at least quickly accessible on the net), with a date stamped on it, we will not remember it and will probably argue over its very existence. We have come to rely on the “displayed word” (as opposed to the written word of old) and our email clients just like we do on air, fast-food and transportation: it is both a blessing and a curse and all in all, a commodity of everyday life that we now take for granted. Many users write to our support team saying their heart skipped a beat when Outlook or their respective client for emails had a problem and either didn’t launch or presented them with an error. Usually, this is easily fixable thanks to advances in application implementation and usability, but sometimes the realization of just how long a way we have really come pops into mind. The communications medium dates back well before the dawn of modern civilizations, born from the innate human desire for contact and remembrance and in its modern variations one can still see the remnants of times long gone. From Pharaohs or Greek gods to you and me, from the Persian postal system and Mongol postal services to modern-day email servers, anyone can look through the veil of time and see that only the look and feel has changed, the concept behind hasn’t. Of course, we benefit from speeds that Hermes could only dream of and reliability that even the Khan’s might could not assure, but the basics are the same: messages and couriers/readers. These can easily be translated in modern terms as emails, servers and email clients… more so, many of the aesthetical standards that are now employed were actually created for messages written millennia ago.

*Trivia: The first postal system was also an intelligence gathering apparatus and tax system. Many accredit the ancient Persians in starting it around 550 B.C., but prior postal-like systems could have existed.

Messaging standards didn’t start with emails and clients, as one may think

Speeds, standards, quantities, number of users, all have risen to a degree no one could have ever anticipated. Because we are so used to the concept of electronic messaging and their respective email clients we wrongly consider many features as new and useful only in this day and age; for example, the simple watermark feature was actually used a thousand years ago in India as well as special signatures and seals, even mail merge campaigns have their origins in the past. Of course, evolving email protocols and requirements also brought new ways of understanding and interacting with others…

The first “real” email is accredited to Ray Tomlinson of the now defunct ARPANET network, which in 1971 sent out a message which he received seconds later, on a computer placed next to the first one. [source] Others tried electronic messaging before, but their methods mainly consisted of users connected to the same host or mainframe, basically an instant messaging application rather than an email client. SNDMSG, for example, was available for almost a decade before the first computer client received an email, but its approach was (in modern terms) somewhat strange: you modified another user’s file on the same computer as the one you were using and he/she would have to open it and read what you have written. Note that at the time, you connected by the means of a dial-up terminal to the same, gigantic computer.

*Trivia: The first virus ever created (the Creeper virus – first detected on ARPANET) appeared in 1971, so security was not as strict as it is now.

ARPANET went on to determine and inspire the modern internet’s structure and IM (derived from the first tries at e-messaging) was all the rage a few years ago and is still being intensely used. At the beginning, companies relied on in-house solutions, custom protocols and email clients for reaching thousands of users inside the network, but this approach was limited and costly, since everyone had to research and develop the technologies individually. The ‘80s brought outside companies in the mix, which started implementing the same protocols wherever their option was used, so that users could practically send messages to different networks using that company’s proprietary email clients. Examples include cc:Mail, Lantastic, WordPerfect Office, Microsoft Mail, Banyan VINES and Lotus Notes. More solutions then appeared to link these incompatible systems so that the basics of the world-wide email system were effectively laid out.

*Trivia: Bill Gates uses email at least since July 16 1982, when a new local-area network connected all development machines in the Microsoft offices and brought an improved email client & system.

The humble beginnings of the modern email client

The first email client program ever developed was named MSG. It was derived from SNDMSG and went through many iterations, names and programmer’s hands where commands were added and re-written, taken out and reinstated until message forwarding and an Answer command that automatically created a reply message with the correct address was implemented. This single action created the first modern Mail User Agent (the formal title of email client), sometime around 1974. One of the MSG-inspired programs, named MH (Mail Handler), which was developed in 1977 is still actively maintained and has become the standard email application for the Unix environment. At the beginning, email was sent through a FTP(File Transport Protocol)-like structure, so an email address of the time could look like this: utzoo!decvax!harpo!eagle!mhtsa!ihnss!ihuxp!grg (where each “!” delimits a computer, and the user acts like a human router, telling the message where to go) [source]. Only after some years had passed did the become the standard.

MSG was also one of the basis in creating the SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol)-type server, which is now the standard gate through all or our messages pass in order to reach their email clients. SMTP relies on a store-and-forward mode of communication and since its birth in 1982 received quite a number of changes (for example, one of the largest one yet is the 1998-1999 implementation of sending from an outside source through a SMTP server to an outside party).

*Trivia: the first spam email ever created was on May 3, 1978, advertising a new computer system. It was sent to 600 users of ARPANET, their addresses entered manually from a printed document.

One of the first email clients that offered the user with a text interface was Elm. Born sometime in 1986 (the exact release date is apparently lost), it offered users with the ability to reply, forward, mail an item etc. through a simple shortcut command line. The last version of the Elm email client was launched in 2005, and while it still offers a command prompt interface and is available only for UNIX systems, it is still under development. Now it possesses abilities such as sorting by date, name, alias etc, attachment options, visual interface and many more. One of Elm’s competitors is MUTT, which launched in 1996 and brought message scoring and threading capabilities, later on adding POP/IMAP support. Other examples of revolutionary email clients include: Citadel/UX (which evolved from a host of bulletin board software and allowed its users to share calendars, all the while providing support for most email protocols and SSL encryption), Eudora (born in 1988, under one form or another being still developed for both the Windows and Apple OS platforms), Gnus (automatic sorting of incoming mail to user-defined groups, setting-up specific rules for the groups etc.), YAM (multiple users, unlimited hierarchical folders, filters, a configurable GUI and many other features which are common for email clients today).

And then there were clients for emails inside browsers

In 1995 no less than 3 separately developed clients for emails that were browser-based have been released. WWW Mail, WebMail and Webex were the forerunners of the solutions that are now employed. These types of clients still exist and are continually upgraded (like Squirrel Mail, RoundCube Webmail or NeoMail – that lets you import address books from Outlook), but generally offer much less options and customization possibilities than stand-alone installations. These types of email clients saw their rise during the ’90s, when one of the first items on a businessman’s wish list was access to their emails from an outside source.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned the big players like Yahoo or Gmail in the above list, note that these are providers for web-based email, which use proprietary email clients, while that short list is of programs that access the messages on a dedicated server (inside a company, for example). What is interesting to note is that 16 years ago there was a market for online, browser-based clients for emails (Lycos, the first of the now popular email providers launched in 1995; just a year after, in 1996, Hotmail was started, while Yahoo! came into play in 1997 and AOL and Gmail in 2004) [source].

At this moment, most people would say that Gmail offers the best features, email client, options etc. but since it is second to Yahoo! in the States (accesses-wise), no one knows for sure which the most used email web service is at the moment. Then there are all the others that share places 3, 4, 5 etc… This abundance actually defines the medium; from the start, developers have always presented clients with multiple choices for emails and to the benefit of all, this behavior later went on to inspire in the modern internet a user and feature-oriented mentality.

Trivia: The “at”, @, sign was chosen by Ray Tomlinson to distinguish emails from users on other computers from the ones composed by people on the same computer as himself. Email had a much more personal feel those days, so when your email client informed you of a new message from say bob@computerB, you actually knew that Bob and where he was located in relation to you (since companies usually housed only a few computers each).

Since we have barely scratched the surface of email messaging and didn’t even get to mention the most important players on today’s field or their email clients, let alone delve into their past or try to predict their future, please check back for the second part of this story which will be posted in a little time.

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