» Archive for February, 2012

The Man Who Didn’t Invent E-mail

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

You invented e-mail? Really?

Recently, I was shocked to learn that a 14-year old named V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai invented e-mail in 1978.  This story came to me via the Washington Post, which reported on February 17 that the “inventor” was being honored by the Smithsonian.  A Time magazine online story which I hadn’t seen until the past week apparently broke the “news” last November.

Why am I using quotation marks (which I typically abhor) around the word “inventor” and “news”?  The answer is simple.  When I first read the story in the Wash Post, I started laughing and quickly double-checked the calendar to see if it were April 1st.  Since it wasn’t, I felt compelled to set the record straight and I am sure that I am not the only one doing so.

If you go back to the Wash Post story today, you’ll see a “clarification” (whoops, there are those pesky quotation marks again) explaining that “a number of readers have accurately pointed out that electronic messaging predates V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai’s work in 1978. However, Ayyadurai holds the copyright to the computer program called “email,” establishing him as the creator of the “computer program for [an] electronic mail system” with that name, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.”

Let’s look back for a moment.   E-mail was a feature of 1960s mainframe computer systems that had the capability allowing a user to send a message to another user of the same system.  This was an advancement of real-time chat programs that were in use up until that point (yes, chat was around in the 1960s).  The MIT CTSS (ca. 1965) is likely to have been the first system that incorporated this kind of e-mail.

In terms of e-mail as we know it now, meaning the ability to send a message to someone using a different computer or computer system, credit goes to Ray Tomlinson (who also invented the use of the “@” symbol in the addressing scheme).  I cover this in my book, Overload!, and this was the killer app of its time.

Now, back to our hero, Mr. Ayyadurai.  While the clarification issued by the Wash Post serves to indicate that there was some degree of public outcry about the article, its wording is ambiguous at best.  Holding the copyright to a computer program named “EMAIL” is not the same thing as having invented e-mail.  Were I to write a messaging program today (assuming I took a crash course in programming first), I too would be able to copyright my very own “EMAIL” program.  So could you, for that matter.

What makes me uneasy about this is that all of the press coverage comes in advance of the publication of Ayyadurai’s book, The EMAIL Revolution.  While the cover of the book seems to be ready, the description merely says “”Lorem ipsum…”   His Web site is a masterpiece of self promotion that also includes a video he prepared: “Turmeric: Wonder Herb of India.”

I stand by what is not really my claim but that of many eminent computer historians, namely that Ray Tomlinson is the inventor and father of modern e-mail.  At least Ray didn’t capitalize it and he certainly isn’t trying to capitalize on it either.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.

In The Briefing Room: Enlocked E-mail Security Tools

Thursday, February 16th, 2012 by Cody Burke

Enlocked's "Send Secured" button shown in the Gmail interface.

Knowledge workers who have been faced with having to e-mail confidential or sensitive information know the drill.  Break up the information into a few separate e-mail messages, use an external secure e-mail tool separate from your normal e-mail system, or just assume nothing can happen and send the e-mail regardless.

None of these solutions is ideal and taking action to secure e-mail frequently requires both the sender and recipient to take extra steps that interrupt their work and waste valuable time.  Getting the information to the recipient securely may require phone calls, sending of passwords via separate e-mail channels, the creation of locked versions of documents in PDF, or packaging information in secure ZIP files.

E-mail presents us with two distinct problems.  The first is the security of the message sent.  Standard e-mail messages are not encrypted and are vulnerable to interception, making it necessary to take further precautions.  The issue of e-mail security is particularly challenging for smaller organizations or individuals who may not have enterprise-level tools available to them.

Moving out of the e-mail client environment to ensure secure communications creates a second problem: in order to secure e-mail messages, the series of steps that must be taken slow down the knowledge worker, and are often simply ignored because of their complexity.  Recently, my colleague Jonathan Spira related to me how he sent sensitive information to his banker.  He first scanned the document, saved it as a PDF file, password protecting it from prying eyes, and then e-mailed it to the banker.  He then called the banker and gave her the password over the phone.

Enlocked, an e-mail security company, is attempting to solve both of these problems in a way that will not only secure important communications and safeguard information, but also not disrupt the flow for the knowledge worker.  Enlocked integrates into either the user’s browser or e-mail client, or it can be used via a mobile app.  Users are given the option of hitting a “Send Secure” button when sending an e-mail, which encrypts the message using the company’s cloud servers.  Enlocked uses the user’s existing credentials (e.g. Google ID if Enlocked is being used with Gmail) when encrypting, so the recipient can verify the validity of the encrypted messages.

On the recipient’s end, if they are an Enlocked user, the system verifies their identity in the same way, by checking the credentials of the plug-in or app.  If they are not an Enlocked user, the recipient is prompted to either download the plugin or to use a Web-based Enlocked Anywhere tool.

The advantage of a system such as Enlocked is that it addresses the two problems outlined previously, namely security and ease of use.  The process of taking the steps needed to exchange a secure e-mail is time consuming and causes the knowledge worker to leave the e-mail client.  This violates the One Environment Rule, a key tenet of Basex’ vision of the productive work environment, the Collaborative Business Environment.  Simply put, the One Environment Rule states that the more knowledge workers stay in one overarching environment to do their work, the more likely it is that the initiative will succeed, and the knowledge workers will be productive.  Conversely, the more the knowledge workers are forced to switch work environments, the more likely they are to fail in their tasks.

When it comes to security, knowledge workers today are faced with a conundrum.  They need to secure communications, but the process of doing so with the available tools slows them down and decreases their productivity.  Knowledge workers already live in their inboxes (for better or worse), and to ensure they use secure communications, any encryption tools must be added to the e-mail client environment.  Tools such as Enlocked, which recognize the necessity of allowing the knowledge worker to complete tasks without switching work environments, could bring easy to use e-mail security to the masses.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

E-mail Disclaimer Overload

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 by Jonathan Spira

Just the message please

I recently noticed not one, not two, but 11 disclaimers at the bottom of an extensive e-mail exchange that occurred over a period of several days.

I noticed that disclaimers first started appearing on some e-mail messages from lawyers a few years back, but more recently, accountants, bankers, financial advisers, and certain types of consultants have also gotten into the act.

Most disclaimers ostensibly serve three functions, although their actual efficacy is subject to question (and would be the topic of an entirely different article):
1.) Notify the recipient that the e-mail message may contain “information that is privileged, confidential and exempt from disclosure under applicable law.”
2.) Tell the recipient NOT to read the e-mail if he is not the intended recipient (presumably, telling the recipient not to read it won’t make him more curious, especially when the disclaimer is at the very end of the message and he’s presumably already read it).
3.) Ask the recipient to destroy the communication if he’s not the intended recipient and, additionally, to notify the sender thusly.

There’s a problem inherent in all of these disclaimers, namely, their position relative to the text of the e-mail message.

Our research on Information Overload has taught me that knowledge workers frequently don’t make it past the middle of the second paragraph of a message. The likelihood of someone making it all the way down to the disclaimer and then reading it is about as likely as someone reading an end-user license agreement (EULA) for a piece of software. (The software companies know that it is very unlikely that a EULA will be read; years ago, PC Pitstop, an antispyware maker, put a note in its own EULA promising $1,000 to the first person who sent an e-mail to a specific e-mail address. It took four months and several thousand downloads before that e-mail arrived and the sender received the $1,000 for his trouble.)

Despite all of this, I really didn’t give much thought to the disclaimer problem until I read an article in the Wall Street Journal (Warning: If the Email You Just Read Isn’t for You, Don’t Read It”) focusing on it. (The premise of the piece was that disclaimers are routinely ignored and held by many to be silly.)

What was really telling were some of the comments from readers. There was clear agreement that the disclaimers were, well, just silly.

Garrett Mcdaniel wrote that, at a previous employment, he added sentences including “Failure to do so will result in the unintended recipient’s immediate extradition to Guantanamo from which they will never be seen or heard from again” or “Crest has been shown to be an effective decay preventive dentifrice when used in a conscientiously applied program….” Neither was ever noticed by a recipient.

Finally, Peter Eggert included a disclaimer on his own comment:
“This comment is the property of Peter and is in no way a representation of his lawyer, dog, parents, the Sun, Jerry Seinfeld, Uranus, or Major League Baseball. Any attempts to recreate this comment shall be deemed ineligible under the SEC Act of 1933, Miranda v. Arizona, and “Finders Keepers”.”

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.