Definitions

coat-mail

E-mail

[ee-meyl]

Electronic mail, often abbreviated to e-mail, email, or originally eMail, is a store-and-forward method of writing, sending, receiving and saving messages over electronic communication systems. The term "e-mail" (as a noun or verb) applies to the Internet e-mail system based on the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, to network systems based on other protocols and to various mainframe, minicomputer, or internet by a particular systems vendor, or on the same protocols used on public networks.

Spelling

The spellings e-mail and email are both common. Several prominent journalistic and technical style guides recommend e-mail, and the spelling email is also recognized in many dictionaries. In the original RFC definitions for the Internet's electronic mail system, neither spelling is used; the service is referred to as mail, and a single piece of electronic mail is called a message.

Newer RFCs and IETF working groups also use email. ARPAnet/DARPAnet users and early developers from Unix, CMS, AppleLink, eWorld, AOL, GEnie, and HotMail used eMail with the letter M capitalized. The authors of some of the original RFCs used eMail when giving their own addresses.

Origin

E-mail predates the inception of the Internet, and was in fact a crucial tool in creating the Internet.

MIT first demonstrated the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) in 1961. It allowed multiple users to log into the IBM 7094 from remote dial-up terminals, and to store files online on disk. This new ability encouraged users to share information in new ways. E-mail started in 1965 as a way for multiple users of a time-sharing mainframe computer to communicate. Although the exact history is murky, among the first systems to have such a facility were SDC's Q32 and MIT's CTSS.

E-mail was quickly extended to become network e-mail, allowing users to pass messages between different computers by at least 1966 (it is possible that the SAGE system had something similar some time before).

The ARPANET computer network made a large contribution to the development of e-mail. There is one report that indicates experimental inter-system e-mail transfers began shortly after its creation in 1969. Ray Tomlinson initiated the use of the @ sign to separate the names of the user and their machine in 1971. The ARPANET significantly increased the popularity of e-mail, and it became the killer app of the ARPANET.

Workings

Example

The diagram above shows a typical sequence of events that takes place when Alice composes a message using her mail user agent (MUA). She types in, or selects from an address book, the e-mail address of her correspondent. She hits the "send" button.

  1. Her MUA formats the message in Internet e-mail format and uses the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) to send the message to the local mail transfer agent (MTA), in this case smtp.a.org, run by Alice's Internet Service Provider (ISP).
  2. The MTA looks at the destination address provided in the SMTP protocol (not from the message header), in this case bob@b.org. An Internet e-mail address is a string of the form localpart@exampledomain.com, which is known as a Fully Qualified Domain Address (FQDA). The part before the @ sign is the local part of the address, often the username of the recipient, and the part after the @ sign is a domain name. The MTA looks up this domain name in the Domain Name System to find the mail exchange servers accepting messages for that domain.
  3. The DNS server for the b.org domain, ns.b.org, responds with an MX record listing the mail exchange servers for that domain, in this case mx.b.org, a server run by Bob's ISP.

  1. smtp.a.org sends the message to mx.b.org using SMTP, which delivers it to the mailbox of the user bob.
  2. Bob presses the "get mail" button in his MUA, which picks up the message using the Post Office Protocol (POP3).

This sequence of events applies to the majority of e-mail users. However, there are many alternative possibilities and complications to the e-mail system:

  • Alice or Bob may use a client connected to a corporate e-mail system, such as IBM Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange. These systems often have their own internal e-mail format and their clients typically communicate with the e-mail server using a vendor-specific, proprietary protocol. The server sends or receives e-mail via the Internet through the product's Internet mail gateway which also does any necessary reformatting. If Alice and Bob work for the same company, the entire transaction may happen completely within a single corporate e-mail system.
  • Alice may not have a MUA on her computer but instead may connect to a webmail service.
  • Alice's computer may run its own MTA, so avoiding the transfer at step 1.
  • Bob may pick up his e-mail in many ways, for example using the Internet Message Access Protocol, by logging into mx.b.org and reading it directly, or by using a webmail service.
  • Domains usually have several mail exchange servers so that they can continue to accept mail when the main mail exchange server is not available.
  • E-mail messages are not secure if e-mail encryption is not used correctly.

It used to be the case that many MTAs would accept messages for any recipient on the Internet and do their best to deliver them. Such MTAs are called open mail relays. This was important in the early days of the Internet when network connections were unreliable. If an MTA couldn't reach the destination, it could at least deliver it to a relay that was closer to the destination. The relay would have a better chance of delivering the message at a later time. However, this mechanism proved to be exploitable by people sending unsolicited bulk e-mail and as a consequence very few modern MTAs are open mail relays, and many MTAs will not accept messages from open mail relays because such messages are very likely to be spam.

Note that the people, e-mail addresses and domain names in this explanation are fictional: see Alice and Bob.

Format

The format of Internet e-mail messages is defined in RFC 5322 and a series of RFCs, RFC 2045 through RFC 2049, collectively called Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME). Although as of July 13 2005 RFC 2822 is technically a proposed IETF standard and the MIME RFCs are draft IETF standards, these documents are the de facto standards for the format of Internet e-mail. Prior to the introduction of RFC 2822 in 2001, the format described by RFC 822 was the de facto standard for Internet e-mail for nearly two decades; it is still the official IETF standard. The IETF reserved the numbers 5321 and 5322 for the updated versions of RFC 2821 (SMTP) and RFC 2822, as it previously did with RFC 821 and RFC 822, honoring the extreme importance of these two RFCs. RFC 822 was published in 1982 and based on the earlier RFC 733 (see ).

Internet e-mail messages consist of two major sections:

  • Header — Structured into fields such as summary, sender, receiver, and other information about the e-mail
  • Body — The message itself as unstructured text; sometimes containing a signature block at the end

The header is separated from the body by a blank line.

Header

Each message has exactly one header, which is structured into fields. Each field has a name and a value. RFC 2822 specifies the precise syntax.

Informally, each line of text in the header that begins with a printable character begins a separate field. The field name starts in the first character of the line and ends before the separator character ":". The separator is then followed by the field value (the "body" of the field). The value is continued onto subsequent lines if those lines have a space or tab as their first character. Field names and values are restricted to 7-bit ASCII characters. Non-ASCII values may be represented using MIME encoded words.

Header fields

The message header usually includes at least the following fields:

  • From: The e-mail address, and optionally the name of the sender
  • To: The e-mail address[es], and optionally name[s] of the message's recipient[s]
  • Subject: A brief summary of the contents of the message
  • Date: The local time and date when the message was written

Note that the "To" field is not necessarily related to the addresses to which the message is delivered. The actual delivery list is supplied in the SMTP protocol, not extracted from the header content. The "To" field is similar to the greeting at the top of a conventional letter which is delivered according to the address on the outer envelope. Also note that the "From" field does not have to be the real sender of the e-mail message. It is very easy to fake the "From" field and let a message seem to be from any mail address. It is possible to digitally sign e-mail, which is much harder to fake. Some Internet service providers do not relay e-mail claiming to come from a domain not hosted by them, but very few (if any) check to make sure that the person or even e-mail address named in the "From" field is the one associated with the connection. Some Internet service providers apply e-mail authentication systems to e-mail being sent through their MTA to allow other MTAs to detect forged spam that might apparently appear to be from them.

Other common header fields include (see RFC 4021 or RFC 2076 for more):

  • Cc: Carbon copy
  • Bcc: Blind Carbon Copy
  • Received: Tracking information generated by mail servers that have previously handled a message
  • Content-Type: Information about how the message has to be displayed, usually a MIME type
  • Reply-To: Address that should be used to reply to the sender.
  • References: Message-ID of the message that this is a reply to, and the message-id of this message, etc.
  • In-Reply-To: Message-ID of the message that this is a reply to.
  • X-Face: Small icon.

Many e-mail clients present "Bcc" (Blind carbon copy, recipients not visible in the "To" field) as a header field. Different protocols are used to deal with the "Bcc" field; at times the entire field is removed, whereas other times the field remains but the addresses therein are removed. Addresses added as "Bcc" are only added to the SMTP delivery list, and do not get included in the message data.

IANA maintains a list of standard header fields

Body

Content encoding

E-mail was originally designed for 7-bit ASCII. Much e-mail software is 8-bit clean but must assume it will be communicating with 8-bit servers and mail readers. The MIME standard introduced character set specifiers and two content transfer encodings to enable transmission of non-ASCII data: quoted printable for mostly 7 bit content with a few characters outside that range and base64 for arbitrary binary data. The 8BITMIME extension was introduced to allow transmission of mail without the need for these encodings but many mail transport agents still do not support it fully. In some countries, several encoding schemes coexist; as the result, by default, the message in a non-Latin alphabet language appears in non-readable form (the only exception is coincidence, when the sender and receiver use the same encoding scheme). Therefore, for international character sets, Unicode is growing in popularity.

Plain text and HTML

Both plain text and HTML are used to convey e-mail. While text is certain to be read by all users without problems, there is a perception that HTML-based e-mail has a higher aesthetic value. Advantages of HTML include the ability to include inline links and images, set apart previous messages in block quotes, wrap naturally on any display, use emphasis such as underlines and italics, and change font styles. HTML e-mail messages often include an automatically-generated plain text copy as well, for compatibility reasons. Disadvantages include the increased size of the email, privacy concerns about web bugs and that HTML email can be a vector for phishing attacks and the spread of malicious software.

Servers and client applications

Messages are exchanged between hosts using the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol with software programs called mail transport agents. Users can download their messages from servers with standard protocols such as the POP or IMAP protocols, or, as is more likely in a large corporate environment, with a proprietary protocol specific to Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange Servers.

Mail can be stored either on the client, on the server side, or in both places. Standard formats for mailboxes include Maildir and mbox. Several prominent e-mail clients use their own proprietary format and require conversion software to transfer e-mail between them.

When a message cannot be delivered, the recipient MTA must send a bounce message back to the sender, indicating the problem.

Filename extensions

Most, but not all, e-mail clients save individual messages as separate files, or allow users to do so. Different applications save e-mail files with different filename extensions..eml

This is the default e-mail extension for Mozilla Thunderbird and Windows Mail. It is used by Microsoft Outlook Express..emlx
Used by Apple Mail..msg
Used by Microsoft Office Outlook.

Use

In society

Flaming

Flaming occurs when one person sends an angry and/or antagonistic message. Flaming is assumed to be more common today because of the ease and impersonality of e-mail communications: confrontations in person or via telephone require direct interaction, where social norms encourage civility, whereas typing a message to another person is an indirect interaction, so civility may be forgotten. Flaming is generally looked down upon by internet communities as it is considered rude and non-productive.

E-mail bankruptcy

Also known as "email fatigue", e-mail bankruptcy is when a user ignores a large number of e-mail messages after falling behind in reading and answering them. The reason for falling behind is often due to information overload and a general sense there is so much information that it is not possible to read it all. As a solution, people occasionally send a boilerplate message explaining that the email inbox is being cleared out. Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig is credited with coining this term, but he may only have popularized it.

In business

E-mail was widely accepted by the business community as the first broad electronic communication medium and was the first ‘e-revolution’ in Business communication. E-mail is very simple to understand and like postal mail, e-mail solves two basic problems of communication: logistics and synchronization (see below). LAN based email is also an emerging form of usage for business. It not only allows the business user to download mail when offline, it also provides the small business user to have multiple users email ID's with just one email connection.

Pros

  • The problem of logistics

Much of the business world relies upon communications between people who are not physically in the same building, area or even country; setting up and attending an in-person meeting, telephone call, or conference call can be inconvenient, time-consuming, and costly. E-mail provides a way to exchange information between two or more people with no set-up costs and that is generally far less expensive than physical meetings or phone calls.

  • The problem of synchronization

With real time communication by meetings or phone calls, participants have to be working on the same schedule and each participant must spend the same amount of time in the meeting or on the call as everyone else. E-mail allows asynchrony -- each participant to decide when and how much time they will spend dealing with any associated information.

Cons

Most business workers today spend from one to two hours of their working day on email: reading, ordering, sorting, ‘re-contextualizing’ fragmented information, and writing e-mail. The use of e-mail is increasing due to increasing levels of globalization—labour division and outsourcing amongst other things. E-mail can lead to some well-known problems:

  • Loss of Context: which means that the context is lost forever , there is no way to get the text back.

Information in context (as in a newspaper) is much easier and faster to understand than unedited and sometimes unrelated fragments of information. Communicating in context can only be achieved when both parties have a full understanding of the context and issue in question.

  • Antisocial Behaviorisms: Email can be a "get out of jail" for those who are nervous or poor articulators in face to face situations. This can lead to society becoming less personal with a greater number of people being unwilling to hold effective conversations face to face.
  • Information overload: E-mail is a push technology—the sender controls who receives the information. Convenient availability of mailing lists and use of "copy all" can lead to people receiving unwanted or irrelevant information of no use to them.
  • Inconsistency: E-mails can duplicate information. This can be a problem when a large team is working on documents and information while not in constant contact with the other members of their team.

Despite these disadvantages, email has become the most widely used medium of communication within the business world.

Challenges

Information overload

A December 2007 New York Times blog post described E-mail as "a $650 Billion Drag on the Economy, and the New York Times reported in April 2008 that "E-MAIL has become the bane of some people’s professional lives" due to information overload, yet "none of [the current wave of high-profile Internet startups focused on email] really eliminates the problem of e-mail overload because none helps us prepare replies".

Technology investors reflect similar concerns.

Spamming and computer viruses

The usefulness of e-mail is being threatened by four phenomena: e-mail bombardment, spamming, phishing, and e-mail worms.

Spamming is unsolicited commercial e-mail. Because of the very low cost of sending e-mail, spammers can send hundreds of millions of e-mail messages each day over an inexpensive Internet connection. Hundreds of active spammers sending this volume of mail results in information overload for many computer users who receive voluminous unsolicited email each day.

E-mail worms use e-mail as a way of replicating themselves into vulnerable computers. Although the first e-mail worm affected UNIX computers, the problem is most common today on the more popular Microsoft Windows operating system.

The combination of spam and worm programs results in users receiving a constant drizzle of junk e-mail, which reduces the usefulness of e-mail as a practical tool.

A number of anti-spam techniques mitigate the impact of spam. In the United States, U.S. Congress has also passed a law, the Can Spam Act of 2003, attempting to regulate such e-mail. Australia also has very strict spam laws restricting the sending of spam from an Australian ISP, but its impact has been minimal since most spam comes from regimes that seem reluctant to regulate the sending of spam.

Privacy concerns

E-mail privacy, without some security precautions, can be compromised because:

  • e-mail messages are generally not encrypted;
  • e-mail messages have to go through intermediate computers before reaching their destination, meaning it is relatively easy for others to intercept and read messages;
  • many Internet Service Providers (ISP) store copies of your e-mail messages on their mail servers before they are delivered. The backups of these can remain up to several months on their server, even if you delete them in your mailbox;
  • the Received: fields and other information in the e-mail can often identify the sender, preventing anonymous communication.

There are cryptography applications that can serve as a remedy to one or more of the above. For example, Virtual Private Networks or the Tor anonymity network can be used to encrypt traffic from the user machine to a safer network while GPG, PGP, or S/MIME can be used for end-to-end message encryption, and SMTP STARTTLS or SMTP over Transport Layer Security/Secure Sockets Layer can be used to encrypt communications for a single mail hop between the SMTP client and the SMTP server.

Additionally, many mail user agents do not protect logins and passwords, making them easy to intercept by an attacker. Encrypted authentication schemes such as SASL prevent this.

Finally, attached files share many of the same hazards as those found in peer-to-peer filesharing. Attached files may contain trojans or viruses.

Tracking of sent mail

The original SMTP mail service provides limited mechanisms for tracking a sent message, and none for verifying that it has been delivered or read. It requires that each mail server must either deliver it onward or return a failure notice ("bounce message"), but both software bugs and system failures can cause messages to be lost. To remedy this, the IETF introduced Delivery Status Notifications (delivery receipts) and Message Disposition Notifications (return receipts); however, these are not universally deployed in production.

US Government

The US Government has been involved in e-mail in several different ways.

Starting in 1977, the US Postal Service (USPS) recognized the electronic mail and electronic transactions posed a significant threat to First Class mail volumes and revenue. Therefore, the USPS initiated an experimental e-mail service known as E-COM. Electronic messages would be transmitted to a post office, printed out, and delivered in hard copy form. In order to take advantage of the service, an individual had to transmit at least 200 messages. The delivery time of the messages was the same as First Class mail and cost 26 cents. The service was said to be subsidized and apparently USPS lost substantial money on the experiment. Both the US Postal Commission and the Federal Communications Commission opposed E-COM. The FCC concluded that E-COM constituted common carriage under its jurisdiction and the USPS would have to file a tariff. Three years after initiating the service, USPS canceled E-COM and attempted to sell it off.

Early on in the history of the ARPANet, there were multiple e-mail clients which had various, and at times, incompatible formats. For example, in the system Multics, the "@" sign meant "kill line" and anything after the "@" sign would be ignored. The Department of Defense DARPA desired to have uniformity and interoperability for e-mail and therefore funded efforts to drive towards unified interoperable standards. This led to David Crocker, John Vittal, Kenneth Pogran, and Austin Henderson publishing RFC 733, "Standard for the Format of ARPA Network Text Message" (Nov. 21, 1977), which was apparently not effective. In 1979, a meeting was held at BBN to resolve incompatibility issues. Jon Postel recounted the meeting in RFC 808, "Summary of Computer Mail Services Meeting Held at BBN on 10 January 1979" (March 1, 1982), which includes an appendix listing the varying e-mail systems at the time. This, in turn, lead to the release of David Crocker's RFC 822, "Standard for the Format of ARPA Internet Text Messages" (Aug. 13, 1982).

The National Science Foundation took over operations of the ARPANet and Internet from the Department of Defense, and initiated NSFNet, a new backbone for the network. A part of the NSFNet AUP was that no commercial traffic would be permitted. In 1988, Vint Cerf arranged for an interconnection of MCI Mail with NSFNET on an experimental basis. The following year Compuserve e-mail interconnected with NSFNET. Within a few years the commercial traffic restriction was removed from NSFNETs AUP, and NSFNET was privatized.

In the late 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission grew concerned with fraud transpiring in e-mail, and initiated a series of procedures on SPAM, fraud, and phishing. In 2004, FTC jurisdiction over SPAM was codified into law in the form of the CAN SPAM Act. Several other US Federal Agencies have also exercised jurisdiction including the Department of Justice and the Secret Service.

See also

Enhancements

E-mail social issues

Clients and servers

Mailing list

Protocols

References

Notes

Bibliography

External links

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