image © Kianlin
On 5th March 2016 an iconic figure of the digital age died. Ray Tomlinson does not have the name recognition of Steve Jobs, but he has a role in the lives of all connected to the internet: he added the @ sign to allow electronic messaging to be sent between computer servers that are not physically connected to each other. He created this programme on Arpanet, the network that would form one of the components of what became the internet we know today. As with other articles on Tech dot MMMporium I will not regale you with the full history of email, but will focus on my personal experience, which is probably more useful in giving a sense of the era to those who did not experience it.
I entered the world of email with CompuServe, the company that launched dial-up internet connections, although the fully joined up internet was not then in existence. What CompuServe offered was a multitude of forums linked to its enclosed system and a service for clipping news stories from media sources. In 1989 it launched an email service and so when I joined CompuServe in 1992 shortly after buying my first PC I gained my first email address. That meant that I was using email 20 years after Tomlinson invented the email address in 1972. At first I did not make a great deal of use of that address as I did not know many people to share the address with. A CompuServe email address was not very exciting to look at. You did not get your name at the front of the address, but your CompuServe ID number. So my address was along the lines of email@example.com. As I said I made little use of this email address at the time as there were not many people I knew connecting to any form of internet at the time. It was only when reading Christine Burns' semi-autobiographical Pressing Matters that I realized that business people were taking out CompuServe accounts and adding their email address to their business cards. That certainly explains why the user profiles in the free CompuServe Magazine were dominated by business types who used the network to check their stock portfolios. I know that I was still using CompuServe in 1994 as I recall using it while on a research trip to Berkeley, California, so that I could use the library there instead of my normal base at Trinity College Dublin's Berkeley Library.
CompuServe was facing increasing competition from AOL in the UK with free floppy disks that came with most issues of my monthly magazine PC Plus. I am not sure at what stage I switched to AOL, but probably early 1997, as I know that it was before Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister for the first time in 1997. The reason that I date the switch in relation to Blair is that one of the few competitions I have ever won in my life was for a free month on AOL by winning a caption competition. The photograph showed Blair electioneering in a pub and being handed a pint of beer by the bartender. My winning caption was "There's no need to Labour the pint." AOL had helped to make email and online access more popular, so that even before I switched I was able to use my CompuServe email address much more because friends had AOL addresses.
One of the attractions of AOL was price: CompuServe was a metered connection (with higher charges for its freephone 0800 line), while AOL was a flat monthly fee of about £5.99. That charge was on top of the phone call charge and so I was very interested when PC Plus promoted the opportunity to pre-register for a new service called Connectfree that would not charge any monthly fee. So I became one of Connectfree's first customers and about the same time Freeserve was launched with backing from the high street chain Dixons, where you could pick up a floppy disk for sign-up. As it was also free I was on both services and so had two email addresses for the first time. The reason that these services could be offered for free was that the phone companies acknowledged that dial-up internet access was a major source of revenue, so began to share a portion of this with the ISPs. I gravitated towards focusing on Freeserve for the simple reason that the email address was fsnet which was much easier to type than Connectfree. A shorter domain name was important in those days as forms asking for your email address often lacked sufficient characters to fit in a longer address. As these free ISPs blossomed I tried various services such as UK Linux (I was using Linux exclusively at home by this stage) and themail.co.uk (because it gave you such a cool email address). Friends complained about how often my internet address was changing, but I pointed out that I could still check all these other accounts as they were free.
This multiple service usage changed in 2000 when ADSL broadband was rolled out in the UK and for some reason my Welsh mountain village was connected much quicker than many other areas. Freeserve entered the broadband market and I switched to them as my only ISP, although I still occasionally signed into Connectfree to pick check emails from friends who forgot that I had told them to use the Freeserve one in future. I stayed with Freeserve until I returned to Ireland in 2006, in fact I stayed with Freeserve longer than Freeserve did, as it sold out to the French Telecom owned Wanadoo shortly after broadband launched. I recall that there was an option to keep the fsnet address, but I chose to take a Wanadoo address instead.
I was aware of Hotmail, which launched in 1996 as the first email service not linked to an ISP, but it had a poor reputation for being targeted by spam, which was a huge issue at the time. Yahoo launched a webmail service in 1997, but it was a few more years before I took the plunge with webmail as I liked the convenience of collecting my email into an email programme. I eventually signed up because I became frustrated with the problems of transferring email inboxes every time I changed my email software, which I did regularly. I certainly had switched to Yahoo Mail before Google launched its Gmail service in 2004, as I switched to Gmail as my main email address. That did not last long as I came across a webmail service that reminded me of my only themail.co.uk address: mail.com. That was an even cooler address and despite the inability to use email software to download the emails mail.com became my main address for several years.
The inability to use POP3 access to download or forward mail.com emails eventually brought me back to Gmail, as it was almost as cool and short a domain name as mail.com. Gmail remained my main email address until I bought my first Windows phone in 2013 around the same time that I bought a Windows 8 laptop. Microsoft tied those devices into a general Microsoft password that also linked to an email address. I had been frustrated at typing out the long name I had for my gmail account, so I used a few of my initials to create a short address for outlook.com, the successor to hotmail.com. I briefly returned to Gmail when my Windows phone broke and I replaced it with an Android, but I am now back with both Windows Phone and outlook.com.
Although my outlook.com webmail address is my main one I also have access to an unlimited amount of emails nowadays and for the first time since AOL in 1998 I am paying for them. This website and all others that MMMporium operates are hosted by Smart Host, who provide unlimited webspace, unlimited websites, and unlimited emails for the website domain names all for a small monthly fee. The irony of how email has developed is that in 1997 I switched to AOL because its £5.99 per month was cheaper than using CompuServe, whereas I now get unlimited everything (except the internet access) for £2.99 per month. So my email history has moved from email as an add-on to online access with CompuServe in 1992 to unlimited email addresses as an add-on to owning my own websites.