how email took root in business and society in the 90s

We are in We.Teams we are not only developing a corporate messenger, but also exploring the very culture of business communication online. One of the first channels that began to be used for business was email. We invite you to go back and see how it attracted attention in the 90s and turned into a new type of business communication that erased boundaries and distances.

E-mail is fun for scientists, but nothing more

Mail appeared long before the Internet: the first electronic messages began to be sent back in 1965 on IBM supercomputers. To do this, they used the write command on the Unix operating system, and in Tenex they attributed messages to the end of the file being sent. The transmission of messages took place within the framework of one computer, and later – a local network, but the communication itself on the computer was more regarded as entertainment.

In the late 60s, computers were considered machines solely for computing, and you could talk on the phone or arrange a personal meeting. But even thirty years later, when the Internet was already capturing minds, there were people who continued to think the same way.

“Email is great, but it’s still a child’s toy”

— Ted Dodd, Story Analyst at Columbia Pictures, 1996

Technology has evolved. When the ARPANET appeared in the US, which began to connect dozens of computers into one network, a common protocol was needed that would make sending and receiving emails a standard for all devices. This is how SMTP was born, which is still used today.

In the 70s, the letter format was standardized with the fields

In the 70s, the letter format was standardized with the fields “From”, “To”, “Subject”. Please note that in the sender’s address, instead of @, they also use at

By the end of the 1980s, computers were powerful enough to be able to constantly exchange e-mails between them. Mail was fixed as a format of communication on the network. Graphic clients began to be made for her – this is how Elm appeared, followed by TUI, Mutt, Pine and others. Scientists continued to make them, but with the expectation of a less technically advanced audience.

“We wanted to give the tool to users who were more interested in doing their job than learning how to use email,”

— The Pine team at the University of Washington

The Pine client in the latest version 4.64, which was released in 2005

The Pine client in the latest version 4.64, which was released in 2005

Email goes online

In 1993, the World Wide Web, which united scientific networks into one, becomes open to everyone. The Internet is beginning to fill up sites, message boards, forums, but for most users it will remain inaccessible for several more years: the speed of entering the network was still not enough. Instead, communication via email, which was built in as a service by early ISPs, was a popular entry point into cyberspace.

One of them is America Online (AOL). This provider is used by the characters in the movie You Have Mail (1998) to exchange e-mails with each other. After connecting to the network via a dial-up modem, a start window pops up with a built-in mailbox and chat. When a new letter appeared, a voice notification “You’ve got mail” came – the same recognizable for American users of the early 90s as the sound of a new message in ICQ for us.

Scenes from the movie

Scenes from the movie “You’ve Got Mail”. Since the movie was released in 1998, AOL could not only send emails, but also use “instant messages” – chat

Despite the fact that there were already standards for sending letters, providers and hosting used different gateways. For example, CompuServe did not have names – only numbers, which were inherited from the old architecture. Communicating within the network, you could send letters to, for example, 71543.310. But if you wanted to send a letter from the same AOL, then you had to specify the gateway and remove the comma: 71543.310@compuserve.com. For those years, the problem with different formats of mail names was quite common. The New York Times paid attentionthat even simple addresses could appear “written in Martian: bigk9@avm1.hq.umars.edu”.

When Internet access became cheaper, and modems a little faster, then logging into the browser was no longer a problem. Webmail came along, one of the first was HotMail, which was free and user-friendly. This greatly simplified access to mail exchange: there was no need to deal with command lines, operating systems and communicate through the mailbox of your provider.

A few years later, HotMail will be bought out by Microsoft and will later turn it into Outlook. This deal will be a milestone for Russia as well: Alexey Krivenkov, one of the founders of Mail.ru, will be inspired by the sale and start building his own postal service.

HotMail mailbox login interface in 1996 and 1997

HotMail mailbox login interface in 1996 and 1997

By the end of the 90s, universities and large corporations were exchanging letters along with paper documents. The first Internet users actively start mailboxes in the free Hotmail and RocketMail services or continue to use the mailboxes of their providers. The popularity of online communication is growing.

The media called this trend Internet mania: the network began to capture the minds of not only ordinary users, but also businesses. In 1993 the Internet attracted 150 thousand monthly users, and by 1994 by mail enjoyed from 40 to 50 million people, of which 16 million are teams and businesses.

Email comes to business

E-mail has changed the very understanding of online communication, especially within companies. In a Wired note They saythat e-mail made correspondence democratic: communication by e-mail smoothes the hierarchy, promotes teamwork and increases the involvement of peripheral workers in a common cause.

Research of those years confirmed these words: mail helped to unite subordinates of different levels and made it possible to conduct a conversation more informally. Moreover, at that time it was possible to write, for example, to Bill Gates and make from correspondence article in The New Yorker.

A reporter used the mail to interview Bill Gates and discuss the future of technology (1994

A reporter used the mail to interview Bill Gates and discuss the future of technology (1994

Email messages are written, but the language is shifting towards spoken language rather than business correspondence on paper. In a couple of years, the first instant messengers will come and simplify the form even more: instant messages will become a symbol of communication in the stream, when you can quickly correspond in short sentences, maintaining a lively dialogue.

For example, in a 1998 article Instant Messages: the New Pace of Business from The New York Times, one of the characters enthusiastically talks about the effectiveness of instant messengers in business. He gives the example that the combination of instant messaging and email helped him and a distributed team develop a feature for a site in less than three days. If we had to use only phone and mail, the development would drag on for a week (if not for a month): an appointment would have to be made for each step.

For businesses, email has become a way to increase the productivity of teams. Some fit it into the current structure of the company, others created departments around the new technology from scratch, which led to a reduction in the number of middle managers. But in any case, the use of mail affected the work: with it, departments could quickly exchange information about customers, make important business decisions as a distributed team, and combine information from different departments.

Communication by mail sometimes began to dominate and crowd out other forms of communication. Top managers could send from 70 to 250 messages a day and ignored the phone unless the call was agreed in the letter. This was in stark contrast to the typical user scenario, where they received a couple of messages a day, most of which were newsletter subscriptions.

Not everywhere digitization proceeded at such a rapid pace. The US public sector in the 90s have worked on outdated technologies. Waiting three or four hours (!) for an email to reach a user on the floor above is a common thing for weak hardware of those years.

It’s funny that sometimes communication by mail turned live meetings into difficult negotiations. In the 1994 book Netiquet, Virginia Shea talks about the managers of a company who discovered an unpleasant thing: all their meetings in the meeting rooms began to take place only on unpleasant topics, because communication by mail was carried out daily and all the most difficult was postponed to meetings in person.

Careless communication in business letters and consequences

Communication by e-mail made correspondence informal – this could sooner or later cause the first problems. When discussing the boss, the daily routine, or colleagues, it was easy to cross the line and set yourself up. If the mail service worked within the company on its own servers, then any user with administrator rights could access it. What follows is a classic story where an employer could read the letters and take action.

The medal, as usual, has two sides. On the one hand, wiretapping email was unacceptable, but on the other hand, it helped to fight people who used the company for their own purposes. For example, the information director of the Bank of Boston discovered that one of his subordinates used as much as 600 megabytes (space figures for 1990) of their computer system to predict the results of horse racing. Naturally, he was fired for this.

But it’s one thing to breach confidentiality, and another to mismail mail to the wrong addressee. Six unlucky assistants of the William Morris film company were fired in 1996 for discussing bosses and ways to work less. In the correspondence, they forgot to remove the administrator’s mailbox, and as a result, everyone was deprived of their jobs.

Unsurprisingly, the Netiquette book is explicit about the rules of safe correspondence: always be aware of who you are sending an email to, and try not to discuss sensitive topics on workboxes. The rule is also valid in 2023.

Email in Russia

In Russia with email started to experiment in the mid-80s, when the scientific centers of the USSR and Austria exchanged data over a dedicated telephone line. Even earlier, there were internal Internet networks that connected computers in Soviet scientific centers and allowed sending e-mails to each other. All this was available to a small circle of people.

The history of the Russian Internet is a separate milestone that cannot be covered in a small chapter. But it all started with the first providers in the early 90s: Relcom, Demos, Komkom and others. Until 1998, Internet users from Russia used mailboxes of Yahoo, HotMail and other companies, but then Mail.ru appeared from Alexey Krivenkov. At first it was a project inside the DataArt Enterprises Incorporated office, then it was an open service for all users.

In 2000, Yandex.Mail was released – the still young Yandex separated from ru-Net Holdings and began developing new services for its search engine. Interestingly, “Google Mail” will appear only in 2004, but still then capture most of the market.

Credits

By the time the mail became mass, the world was already on the verge of the emergence of new technologies: in 1996, ICQ appeared, then, a couple of years later, Yahoo Messenger, MSN, AIM and others. Nevertheless, mail is still used and, it seems, will continue to be used.

We recently held survey in your telegram channel to find out what subscribers most often use to communicate at work. Mail is not the leader, but for 15% of people it is still the most popular way to communicate with colleagues.

If the material comes in, then in the next part we will talk about the history of the development of instant messengers: the emergence, competition, applied technologies. Subscribe to our telegram channelso you don’t miss the announcement. There you will also learn more about our We.Teams messenger and the date of its release to the public.

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