TECH TALK: The Death and Rebirth of Email: Small World

The past week, as various variations of viruses and worms made their way across computers on the Internet, there has been a resounding cry among many whose Inboxes have been flooded: email is dead, email publishing is dead. Well, as it turns out, we Indians believe in reincarnation, so this column is about what can be done about email in its next life.

Our digital life built around the Internet has been coming under threat from various quarters of late. Most users were already reeling from a huge increase in spam in the past year. And just last week, we had the MSBlast work making its way through unpatched Windows 2000 and XP computers on the Internet. If all this wasnt enough, we had 50 million people without electricity and their connected lives in parts of the US and Canada. Just a couple days ago, eBay the worlds largest auctions site and the focus of recent stories in Fortune and Business Week had a power-related outage which forced it to be unavailable for three hours.

All these problems apart, what pushed many over the tipping point in recent days has been the rapid spread of the Sobig virus. It has been called the fastest spreading virus ever. It exploits vulnerabilities in Microsofts Outlook and Outlook Express to send itself to many more from an infected computer. Many people found themselves receiving hundreds of mails which their mail servers and clients found it difficult to cope with. A few ISPs even shut down their mail servers in order to limit the spread. In effect, email, the lifeline for many on the Internet, was cut.

As we seek to understand the chaos that our digital lives are going through, it is important to understand that we lived in a small, connected world. Networks are ubiquitous around us. Whether we refer to the global village, our friend circle, the Internet, the highways, the electrical grid or even trade, connectedness is pervasive. Wrote Seth Schiesel in The New York Times (August 21):

Taken together, the blackout and the worm underscore a far-reaching challenge in managing modern technological societies: the difficulty of reaping the benefits of networks – railroad networks, airline networks, telephone networks, power networks and computer networks, among others – while minimizing their vulnerabilities.

As Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute, a unit of George Washington University, puts it: “The plus of a network is that everything is connected. The minus of a network is that everything is connected.”

So, whether we like it or not, isolation is out, and integration is in. This is what the Sobig virus exploited on its deadly march across the Internet. It picked up email addresses from locally cached web pages and address books on the infected computers and sent emails with attachments to spread itself. As it turns out, there are still millions among us who have not learnt to ignore attachments unless absolutely certain. All it takes in a connected world is the actions of a few to impact many. This is how the discussion on the death of email has begun.

Tomorrow: Email Tales

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.