30 Years Ago: How Email Rose to Become the No. 1 Killer App

eWEEK 30: The first in-house email was sent in 1965. Since then, more than 3 billion email accounts exist and about 294 billion emails are sent per day.

When the first personal computers started being sold by Apple and IBM in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was common for people to ask: "Why do you really need to buy a PC?"

The truth was, if you had a typewriter, that's pretty much all you needed to create documents. If you wanted to play video games, you'd go down to the mall. If you needed to do math problems, you got a calculator.

Back then, everybody existed in what we now call data silos. People did home finances on PCs, wrote documents and printed them out, and played a few simple games. Few computers were connected, and those that were invariably belonged to high-security government agencies such as the military or corporate enterprises doing business with government that had access to central mainframe computers.

Ethernet networking was invented in the 1970s, and IBM introduced Token Ring networking in the 1980s. But few enterprises had good business reasons to install Local Area Networks (LANs) before the mid-1980s, when personal computers became common in corporate offices.

In 1982, IBM introduced PROFS, for Professional Office SystemVM, which ran on IBM mainframes and some of its midrange computer systems and included an email application. For Digital Equipment Corp. minicomputer systems, email service was provided through the company's All-In-1 office productivity package.

In the early days, before the development of PCs, there were no readily available desktop software applications that could be used to send messages from one person's desktop computer to another outside of those internal wired networks. But that situation would soon change in the mid-1980s when many enterprises started to rapidly install and expand LANs.

Popular LAN email packages that emerged in this period included Microsoft Mail, which would eventually become part of the Microsoft Office suite, along with Word Perfect Office, cc:Mail, Banyan Vines and eventually Lotus Notes.

Email Was Simple, and It Worked

So how did electronic mail, which two generations after it first appeared is still considered the No. 1 killer app in the computer business, get started? Easy: It was simple, and it worked—well, most of the time. Email still has hiccups today, but not very often. NetHistory.info explains it this way:

"Email is much older than ARPANet or the Internet. It was never invented; it evolved from very simple beginnings. Early email was just a small advance on what we know these days as a file directory; it just put a message in another user's directory in a spot where they could see it when they logged in. Simple as that. Just like leaving a note on someone's desk."

In 2012, it was estimated there were more than 3 billion email accounts in the world, and that about 294 billion emails were sent per day. Roughly 78 percent of those were spam.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris Preimesberger

Chris Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in large part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 12 years and more than 3,900 stories at eWEEK, he has...