TECH TALK: The Death and Rebirth of Email: Solution Ideas

Email is our electronic lifeline. Just ten years ago, most of us outside of academia and research had barely heard of it. Telephone calls, letters and faxes were the communications means available to us. The interconnectivity between hitherto separate networks, services like AOL and Hotmail, Microsofts Outlook desktop email clients, the growing numbers of people connected to the Internet, and faster and more permanent connections to the Net have ensured a skyrocketing in the use of email. Whether it is for personal or business interactions, email has now become the preferred form of communication for many. So, when it is not available for some reason, we feel disconnected and disoriented.

Viruses and Spams are now threatening to kill email. While a combination of firewalls, anti-virus software and spam filters can create a reasonably hassle-free environment, it may still not be good enough for the world at large. So, in this networked world, what can we do fix email? Here are some which are representative of the thinking that has been going around.

Joi Ito writes about the need for alternate forms of communications, in response to a report that top Internet service providers blocked 17 percent of legitimate permission-based e-mail in the first half of the year: I pronounce email officially broken. If 17 percent of legit email is being blocked by spam filters, it’s not officially working. No wonder I’m using blogs, IRC and IM for my primary modes of connecting with important people these days.

Robert Scoble, who works at Microsoft, advocates server-side filtering: I’ve switched all my personal email to Hotmail and it stayed up with no troubles through all the virus troubles during the last week. Despite putting my email address everywhere on my weblog — I only got a couple of the virus-related ones, and they had their attachments stripped. Server-side email cleaning is the only way to go. It’s also why I use a few instant messenging programs — in case everything email goes down, people can still get ahold of me with IM.

Tim Bray looks at the problem of the email client in this case, Microsofts Outlook and Outlook Express. Their ubiquity has become a magnet for virus-writers.

Since everyone else is running the same software, every deranged virus writer and bored script kiddie in the world has you as their target. While Microsoft does take security seriously these days, its going to be tough to get Outlook really properly nailed down because theres a lot of legacy code in there, and the original central architectural precept was to focus on responsiveness not security.

Of course, there are a certain number of people who are stuck with Outlook forever, because their employer has bought into Outlook calendaring and they build their weeks around that. For everyone else, there are email clients that are either free or real cheap, and just as good if not better, and essentially virus-proof. Why on earth would you not switch?

Tim goes on to suggest many alternatives, each of these has been proven to be able to handle massive volumes of email traffic, and huge archives of back-email. The alternate email client options are: Eudora, Mozilla, (the Macs native email client), Pegasus, and a couple of non-GUI ones (Pine and Gnus).

Business Week proposes many solutions, one among them is for ISPs: In general, the ISPs have failed to underscore that security is a serious matterAn educational campaign on the importance of computer safety would be in order. Even better, ISPs could easily offer antivirus and basic firewalling as an economical add-on service. I would bet they could sell it for $5 per month and probably make a profit on the deal, since many firewalls and anti-virus programs are now automatically updated and require little maintenance.

Tomorrow: Solution Ideas (continued)

TECH TALK The Death and Rebirth of Email+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.