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Is e-mail a dead technology? February 24, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in communication, explore, internet, learn, life, technology.
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the big questionSpam has become the bane of my working life. We’ve had to switch to an online quarantine system, set at its highest level, in order to keep viruses off our computer system. I usually receive about 100 spam e-mails per day — some of my co-workers have to deal with several hundred — and my biggest grudge is that I can’t just set up the filter system and forget about it.

I don’t think there’s any quarantine system that’s 100% reliable, unless you only ever get e-mails from a predictable list of safe senders. So for the sake of one legitimate e-mail which invariably is caught in the net with the 100 or so spam, I have to do my own visual scan of everything in the junk mail folder. Not only is this a slow and tedious task, but it is also odious: I dislike having to even skim through the subject lines — as laughable and ridiculous as some of them are — and I really resent the time I’ve lost to so-called businesses offering free prescriptions and sexual enhancements. So, not only are legitimate e-mails less likely to get to me (at least, in a timely manner), but I am also less confident that my e-mails are arriving at their destinations safely.

Chad Perrin, in his blog entry “The truth about e-mail spam”, says that spam now makes up about 85% of all e-mail. “Without a reasonable guarantee that legitimate emails will get through,” he writes, “email is useless, no matter how clean of spam it may be.”

He points out that spam has proliferated because it is easy and cheap — trojans and “spambots” do most of the work, linking infected computers in a loose network to send a mind-boggling number of e-mails.

Sadly, spam wouldn’t have become such a problem if personal computers were not so easily infected, or, in other words, if computer users were more careful about security. “Eliminating the means by which spammers defer their costs to millions of unsuspecting home users of personal computers,” Chad says, “would have a significant effect on the volume of spam.”

Similarly, Justin James refers to “E-mail’s swan song” in his programming blog. “E-mail was going to revolutionize our world,” he says, “but this is no longer the case. E-mail is hopelessly devalued to the point where I barely use it.”

He lays the blame at the feet of the SMTP protocol system which was designed to deliver mail, not protect it. “SMTP has its roots in an era… [when] e-mail delivery time was measured in hours and sometimes days. In other words, e-mail was fine for non-critical items. The SMTP standard[s]… are written to meet the demands of that environment. As a result, it is nearly worthless in today’s environment and, in fact, it makes matters much worse due to the security and spam issues involved.”

Justin suggests that this is another sign that the personal computer is headed the way of the dodo, and that the “cloud” and other internet-based programs are the sign of the future. “For many users (particularly in the consumer space), the blossoming of Web applications means that they really do not need a PC per se — they just need a device that can access the Web and preferably has a way of attaching a large display and a full-size mouse and keyboard.”

It’s true that many people today are relying on the internet for sending and receiving e-mail, storing documents, and working in collaboration with others. I can’t imagine not being connected to the internet. But I also depend on my computer for many non-internet functions, from photo processing to personal information storage. Maybe the best idea is that our internet connections could be separated — physically or virtually — from our vulnerable personal computers.

So perhaps e-mail will die, at least on home computer systems. Long live virtual communication!

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Comments»

1. Justin James - February 25, 2008

Glad that you liked my article!

“It’s true that many people today are relying on the internet for sending and receiving e-mail, storing documents, and working in collaboration with others. I can’t imagine not being connected to the internet. But I also depend on my computer for many non-internet functions, from photo processing to personal information storage. Maybe the best idea is that our internet connections could be separated — physically or virtually — from our vulnerable personal computers.”

Beleive me, I am NOT in favor of “cloud computing!” I am very, very against it, because I feel that truly “personal” computing requires big amounts of CPU horsepower locally and zero latency. Things like photo processing, video games, mathematical exploration of data sets, and so on. But most people don’t work with PC’s like this anymore. For me, as a programmer, it speaks to the failure of application authors: we have failed to tell a compelling story for computing, outside of video games. Best Buy, Circuit City, etc. sold a ton of the last generation of PCs to consumers, promising that it would unleash their creativity and they would suddenly be making home videos, doing “digital darkroom”, and so on and so on. The PC was supposed to become the center of the average PC’s personal life. What ended up happening is that content creation is a ton of *work* and the applications are really hard to use; for example, learning Word well enough to become a novelist (and not get angry with the tools on a regular basis) is no small task. More to the point, most people do not want to *work* on their spare time, plain and simple! Faced with a choice of sending out some photos that have red eye and then spending the rest of the afternoon with your family, friends, pets, whatever, or spending $50 on software and days (I am talking average user here, not you specifically) trying to figure the software out and then hours removing red eye… which do you think people prefer?

I definitely think the upgrade cycle from the last major sales cycle of PCs is not going to be as fast or as strong as the base says it should be. I think a lot of people who bought PCs since around the time SP 2 for XP was released are probably not upgrading them any time soon. The bad press on Vista will keep people away from getting new PCs for a while too. So if they are stuck with ancient PCs, it is hard to make next generation applications for them, especially since all they do is watch YouTube videos, send IMs via MSN Messenger or AIM, and play around on the Internet. And for that user, it doesn’t really matter if they have a full tower PC, or a smartphone with a dociking station so they can sit down with a real mouse, keyboard, and display.

J.Ja

2. eyegillian - February 25, 2008

Thanks for the comment, Justin. I apologize for confusing your reference to “the blossoming of web applications” with cloud computing. I admit that I’m intrigued by the concept, but I’m suspicious of such heavy reliance on online programs and private companies for a comprehensive bundle of services. I’m not ready to give up that much control.

Computers are time-consuming, and that’s not even considering the demands of e-mail and normal maintenance. I usually spend one or two hours on my home computer after spending most of my workday on one. But I’m willing, for the moment, to pay that price in order to be connected (or at least feel connected) to the wired world. But I agree that not everyone needs a full-featured computer; witness the popularity of cellphones for texting and new technology like the iPhone for browsing the internet. If you just need to get online, you don’t need a computer anymore.


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