A tiny, yellow icon emulating a closed envelope at the bottom right-hand corner of the computer monitor isn't what makes electronic messaging the marvel of the 21st century.
But the fact that e-mail users can choose between ignoring the envelope icon or opening the contents right away is one of the main reasons e-mail is such a valuable tool.
"One of the great things about e-mail is it becomes, in a sense, a storage system. I send you a piece of e-mail and you have it for as long as you need it or until you delete it. This is a key value of e-mail today," said Tristan Goguen, president of Internet Light and Power (ILAP), a Toronto-based Internet service provider.
What essentially started in the early 1970s as a way to exchange information electronically over the Internet has over the years evolved into one of the most essential elements of business communications in existence.
But spam changes things
In recent years, the proliferation of spam and junk e-mail has caused many organizations to invest millions of dollars on technology in an effort to battle the illegal content, while also trying to regain control over the incoming flow of information on their e-mail servers.
Most industry insiders agree, despite the increased capital being spent on controlling unwanted e-mail and the amount of extra time it takes users to sort through the piles of spam they receive on a daily basis, the future of e-mail is secure. Its value is too engrained and, because of that, it will continue to be a force to reckon with.
E-mail grew up at a time when the Internet was a friendly, hospitable place. "The protocol was designed to not protect a lot of attacks. Strong authentication was not required and you didn't know who was sending you an e-mail message ... there were no resource constraints and e-mail just showed up," said Anil Somayaji, an assistant professor of computer science at Carleton University in Ottawa. "That is changing now."
With estimates from IDC hovering at about 30 billion e-mail messages being sent each year, a number that will double by 2006, people no longer underestimate spam's effect on e-mail.
San Francisco-based Ferris Research Inc. estimates that the cost of spam will exceed US$10 billion for North American businesses this year by consuming computing resources, help-desk and e-mail administration time and worker productivity.
Twenty-four million unsolicited e-mail messages cross the lines monthly at Magma Communications, an Internet service provider based in Ottawa.
Even with a multi-level filtering system in place, 74 percent of all the e-mail traffic that goes through Magma is unsolicited, costing the company approximately C$250,000 (US$184,515) over the past three years, says A.J. Byers, Magma's CEO.
Alan Lepofsky, senior marketing manager of Lotus Workplace products in Toronto, says his life is better because of e-mail, but his e-mail is negatively affected because of spam.
"People abuse what could be a good thing," he said. "A beer at the end of the night is a good thing ... four of them ruin my day."
A valuable tool nonetheless
Spam aside, the first thing most people do when they get to work is turn on their computers, Lepofsky said.
"They don't pick up the phone and check their voice mail messages," he said, "they go straight for their e-mail."
With so much emphasis put on electronic messaging within the office setting, it shouldn't be a surprise that e-mail is the lifeblood (about 80 percent) of the content most companies keep, Lepofsky says. Most people shiver when they think back to life before messaging and to those old days when communications options were limited to picking up the phone, sending snail mail or hammering out a facsimile.
Today, e-mail can save time and long distance bills and it can, in many cases be the fastest and easiest way to contact people.
In fact e-mail has become such a fixed tool in every day business life that users have less tolerance for e-mail problems, said Shawn Yeager, technology infrastructure practice director at Toronto-based Avanade Canada Inc., a technology integrator of Microsoft Corp. solutions.
For one of Yaeger's clients, e-mail is more critical than an enterprise resource planning system. "We are moving from these wild, wild west days when people could drop an e-mail server wherever they wished and we are turning to a much more centralized, standardized means of putting e-mail infrastructure in place," he said.
Because of this, Jeff Ubois, an analyst at Ferris Research, says the future of e-mail will likely look at lot like it did in the past. "It's hard to migrate away from an e-mail system and it's incredibly expensive to migrate away from an e-mail system."
For example, there is the learning curve it would take to teach current e-mail users a new application, but e-mail is also a common denominator and that's the main reason it will likely stick around, Ubois explains.
"Everybody has learned how to use it at this point," he said, "and everyone will have to continue to use it."
But limits need to be put into the system. Carleton's Somayaji says there needs to be barriers against spammers to make spam less profitable.
"We've created an evolutional niche which is so favorable to those that want to create spam messages," he said, adding that spam is a sociological problem and users have learn to stop responding to spam. For example, there needs to be established social norms to stop people from opening spam messages -- like when phones were first becoming popular, and people were making crank calls a habit.
"Yes people still do crank calls but it's not so much of an issue anymore," he says.
"In some ways, e-mail is about as mature as the Internet gets and it's one of the oldest applications. In terms of usage patterns its definitely not mature but it's evolving very fast," Somayaji said. "I think it will eventually settle down, but it might take a couple of decades."
Put on the armor
The one question that hasn't been answered from the IT industry is how to put barriers in place to protect e-mail from a future that invariably includes the existence of unwanted messages. Of all the suggestions and recommendations floating around today it seems that legislation and anti-spam technology are the two leading contenders to reduce the scourge.
New U.S. anti-spam legislation called Controlling the Assault of Non-solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) hit the streets in January of this year, rekindling the age-old conversation around the necessity of legislation in the battle against spam.
Four of the major ISPs in the U.S. filed lawsuits in February against hundreds of defendants, some named and others known only as Jane or John Doe. In Canada, legal options against spammers include the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, the federal competition act with its misleading ad clause, and computer fraud and mischief laws. There are also a few private members bills in the House of Commons, said Richard Corley, partner at Blake, Cassels and Graydon LLP and the co-head of the IT practice at the firm.
The solution to spam has to be universal when it comes to legal solutions, if it isn't, what we do is just push the problem offshore," said Cobourg, Ont.-based Tom Copeland, chairman of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP). "Right now we are in a holding pattern in Canada to see if this legislation has any teeth."
Even if the legislation does prove to be an effective method of deterring spammers at the source, Forrester Research Inc.'s Elana Anderson says there could be other effective methods.
For example, she explains that one solution to spam can be found at the economic core of the issue. She says that the burden of the cost of e-mail should be on the sender and not on the ISPs, businesses or consumers.
E-mail is inexpensive, unlike the telephone where there is a connection charge, or with sending letters there is the cost of paper and postage.
"E-mail is a wonderful revolution in our lives and what (Forrester is) proposing is to focus the fee on senders of bulk e-mailers," she says.
Anderson says high volume e-mailers should be forced to attach their identity to each message they send, forming a central registry. This registry would validate for ISPs and companies that the message comes from a legitimate sender. With this registry in place, Anderson also supports the idea of a fee-based structure for e-mail.
For the price of about one penny, or less, a member-owned organization would operate and manage transactions among card issuers, cardholders and merchants.
"E-mail is essentially free today and any return rate drives revenue so once you put a cost on that, you're going to drive the people out of business that send out millions of messages, she says. The registry idea would solve 80 percent of the spam problem, Anderson claims, and the other 20 percent can be solved by the fee-based system.
Tim Bray, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s technical director of the firm's software group, is also bullish on the fee-based system. "The current system isn't working," he said. "And frankly, I'm a heavy e-mail user and at a penny an e-mail it's not going to be a noticeable cost. To stop spam, I'll pay it cheerfully."
However, not everyone sees pay-for-mail as a solution. "With fees, you get rid of a lot of benefits of e-mail," Somayaji said. "I don't think people will move towards pay-based mechanisms because then you create a whole other niche."
Another problem rises that every ISP, every IT vendor and every e-mail user has a different solution. For example, Microsoft Corp. recently started talking about Caller ID, a sender authentication technology that tries to validate the source address associated with an e-mail message.
The bottom line, Anderson said, is that the industry needs to start working together. "Where we were a year ago, there wasn't even a proposal on the table and now there are several proposals on the table," she said. "The conversations are starting to happen and that's a good sign."
It will still be at least three years before anything concrete takes form in dealing with spam, Anderson added.
The evolution continues...Or does it?
David Skoll, president of Ottawa-based Roaring Penguin Software Inc. suggests that large corporations will eventually have to stop accepting any kind of attachments and should use e-mail as a tool for sending plain text only.
"They need to use e-mail as it was intended back in the 1970s as a way to get a text message from one person to another," he said. "HTML tricks are the most common ways that spammers use to make content filters and are a security risk on certain platforms."
In his perfect world, e-mail would revert to being short text messages between people -- the way it was originally designed.
For Tony White, associate professor of computer science at Carleton University, this "de-evolution" is not a good idea, and the use of technology as it is available should continue.
"Knowledge truly is power," he said.
As the age of e-mail collaboration suites, e-mail management systems including instant messaging and Really Simple Syndication (RSS) continue to grow in the industry, people are learning to use different tools for select types of messages. For instance, urgent requests can be sent using IM while other messages that aren't time sensitive can be communicated via e-mail.
Sun's Bray says he believes e-mail can be saved. "I think there are different kinds of things and they are all going to learn to work together. It's early in the ballgame, we haven't fully mastered which is which, but I think as time goes one, we'll learn what works best."
Are we in a good spot now? Carleton's Somayaji says no.
"I think we are in an awkward phase because the community norms and usage patterns have changed so fast," he said, adding, however, that the evolutionary path will continue and e-mail will be a part of the picture.