Electronic mail, most commonly referred to as email or e-mail since approximately 1993, is a method of exchanging digital messages from an author to one or more recipients. Modern email operates across the Internet or other computer networks. Some early email systems required that the author and the recipient both be online at the same time, in common with instant messaging. Today's email systems are based on a store-and-forward model. Email servers accept, forward, deliver, and store messages. Neither the users nor their computers are required to be online simultaneously; they need connect only briefly, typically to an email server, for as long as it takes to send or receive messages.
Historically, the term electronic mail was used generically for any electronic document transmission. For example, several writers in the early 1970s used the term to describe fax document transmission. As a result, it is difficult to find the first citation for the use of the term with the more specific meaning it has today.
An Internet email message consists of three components, the message envelope, the message header, and the message body. The message header contains control information, including, minimally, an originator's email address and one or more recipient addresses. Usually descriptive information is also added, such as a subject header field and a message submission date/time stamp.
Originally a text-only (ASCII) communications medium, Internet email was extended to carry, e.g., text in other character sets, multi-media content attachments, a process standardized in RFC 2045 through 2049. Collectively, these RFCs have come to be called Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME). Subsequently, the IETF defined an internationalization framework, e.g., Email Address Internationalization (eai), for using unencoded UTF-8 in email.
Electronic mail predates the inception of the Internet and was in fact a crucial tool in creating it, but the history of modern, global Internet email services reaches back to the early ARPANET. Standards for encoding email messages were proposed as early as 1973 (RFC 561). Conversion from ARPANET to the Internet in the early 1980s produced the core of the current services. An email sent in the early 1970s looks quite similar to a basic text message sent on the Internet today.
Network-based email was initially exchanged on the ARPANET in extensions to the File Transfer Protocol (FTP), but is now carried by the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), first published as Internet standard 10 (RFC 821) in 1982. In the process of transporting email messages between systems, SMTP communicates delivery parameters using a message envelope separate from the message (header and body) itself.
Electronic mail has several English spelling options that occasionally prove cause for vehement disagreement.
There is also some variety in the plural form of the term. In US English email is used as a mass noun (like the term mail for items sent through the postal system), but in British English it is more commonly used as a count noun with the plural emails.][
AUTODIN network provided message service between 1,350 terminals, handling 30 million messages per month, with an average message length of approximately 3,000 characters. Autodin was supported by 18 large computerized switches, and was connected to the United States General Services Administration Advanced Record System, which provided similar services to roughly 2,500 terminals.
With the introduction of MIT's Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) in 1961 multiple users were able to log into a central system from remote dial-up terminals, and to store and share files on the central disk. Informal methods of using this to pass messages developed and were expanded to create the first system worthy of the name "email":
Other early systems soon had their own email applications:
Though they're all similar in concept, these original email systems had widely different features and ran on systems that were incompatible with each other. They allowed communication only between users logged into the same host or "mainframe," although there might be hundreds or thousands of users within an organization.
In the early 1980s, networked personal computers on LANs became increasingly important. Server-based systems similar to the earlier mainframe systems were developed. Again, these systems initially allowed communication only between users logged into the same server infrastructure. Examples include:
Eventually these systems too could link different organizations as long as they ran the same email system and proprietary protocol.
Soon systems were developed to link compatible mail programs between different organisations over dialup modems or leased lines, creating local and global networks.
Other, separate networks were also being created including:
Early interoperability among independent systems included:
There were later efforts at interoperability standardization too:
In the early 1970s, Ray Tomlinson updated an existing utility called SNDMSG so that it could copy messages (as files) over the network. Lawrence Roberts, the project manager for the ARPANET development, took the idea of READMAIL, which dumped all "recent" messages onto the user's terminal, and wrote a program for TENEX in TECO macros called RD, which permitted access to individual messages. Barry Wessler then updated RD and called it NRD.
Marty Yonke rewrote NRD to include reading, access to SNDMSG for sending, and a help system, and called the utility WRD, which was later known as BANANARD. John Vittal then updated this version to include three important commands: Move (combined save/delete command), Answer (determined to whom a reply should be sent) and Forward (sent an email to a person who was not already a recipient). The system was called MSG. With inclusion of these features, MSG is considered to be the first integrated modern email program, from which many other applications have descended.
The ARPANET computer network made a large contribution to the development of email. There is one report that indicates experimental inter-system email transfers began shortly after its creation in 1969. Ray Tomlinson is generally credited as having sent the first email across a network, initiating the use of the "@" sign to separate the names of the user and the user's machine in 1971, when he sent a message from one Digital Equipment Corporation DEC-10 computer to another DEC-10. The two machines were placed next to each other. Tomlinson's work was quickly adopted across the ARPANET, which significantly increased the popularity of email. For many years, email was the killer app of the ARPANET and then the Internet.
Most other networks had their own email protocols and address formats; as the influence of the ARPANET and later the Internet grew, central sites often hosted email gateways that passed mail between the internet and these other networks. Internet email addressing is still complicated by the need to handle mail destined for these older networks. Some well-known examples of these were UUCP (mostly Unix computers), BITNET (mostly IBM and VAX mainframes at universities), FidoNet (personal computers), DECnet (various networks) and CSNET, a forerunner of NSFNet.
An example of an Internet email address that routed mail to a user at a UUCP host:
This was necessary because in early years UUCP computers did not maintain (and could not consult central servers for) information about the location of all hosts they exchanged mail with, but rather only knew how to communicate with a few network neighbors; email messages (and other data such as Usenet News) were passed along in a chain among hosts who had explicitly agreed to share data with each other. (Eventually the UUCP Mapping Project would provide a form of network routing database for email.)
The diagram to the right shows a typical sequence of events that takes place when Alice composes a message using her mail user agent (MUA). She enters the email address of her correspondent, and hits the "send" button.
This server may need to forward the message to other MTAs before the message reaches the final message delivery agent (MDA).
That sequence of events applies to the majority of email users. However, there are many alternative possibilities and complications to the email system:
Many MTAs used to accept messages for any recipient on the Internet and do their best to deliver them. Such MTAs are called open mail relays. This was very 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 closer to the destination. The relay stood a better chance of delivering the message at a later time. However, this mechanism proved to be exploitable by people sending unsolicited bulk email and as a consequence very few modern MTAs are open mail relays, and many MTAs don't accept messages from open mail relays because such messages are very likely to be spam.
The Internet email message format is now defined by RFC 5322, with multi-media content attachments being defined in RFC 2045 through RFC 2049, collectively called Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions or MIME. RFC 5322 replaced the earlier RFC 2822 in 2008, and in turn RFC 2822 in 2001 replaced RFC 822 – which had been the standard for Internet email for nearly 20 years. Published in 1982, RFC 822 was based on the earlier RFC 733 for the ARPANET.
Internet email messages consist of two major sections:
The header is separated from the body by a blank line.
Each message has exactly one header, which is structured into fields. Each field has a name and a value. RFC 5322 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.
Email header fields can be multi-line, and each line should be at most 78 characters long and in no event more than 998 characters long. Header fields defined by RFC 5322 can only contain US-ASCII characters; for encoding characters in other sets, a syntax specified in RFC 2047 can be used. Recently the IETF EAI working group has defined some standards track extensions, replacing previous experimental extensions, to allow UTF-8 encoded Unicode characters to be used within the header. In particular, this allows email addresses to use non-ASCII characters. Such characters must only be used by servers that support these extensions.
The message header must include at least the following fields:
The message header should include at least the following fields:
RFC 3864 describes registration procedures for message header fields at the IANA; it provides for permanent and provisional message header field names, including also fields defined for MIME, netnews, and http, and referencing relevant RFCs. Common header fields for email include:
Note that the To: field is not necessarily related to the addresses to which the message is delivered. The actual delivery list is supplied separately to the transport protocol, SMTP, which may or may not originally have been extracted from the header content. The "To:" field is similar to the addressing at the top of a conventional letter which is delivered according to the address on the outer envelope. In the same way, the "From:" field does not have to be the real sender of the email message. Some mail servers apply email authentication systems to messages being relayed. Data pertaining to server's activity is also part of the header, as defined below.
SMTP defines the trace information of a message, which is also saved in the header using the following two fields:
Other header fields that are added on top of the header by the receiving server may be called trace fields, in a broader sense.
Email was originally designed for 7-bit ASCII. Most email software is 8-bit clean but must assume it will communicate with 7-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 and BINARY extensions were introduced to allow transmission of mail without the need for these encodings, but many mail transport agents still do not support them 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.
Most modern graphic email clients allow the use of either plain text or HTML for the message body at the option of the user. HTML email messages often include an automatically generated plain text copy as well, for compatibility reasons.
Advantages of HTML include the ability to include in-line 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. Disadvantages include the increased size of the email, privacy concerns about web bugs, abuse of HTML email as a vector for phishing attacks and the spread of malicious software.
Some web based Mailing lists recommend that all posts be made in plain-text, with 72 or 80 characters per line for all the above reasons, but also because they have a significant number of readers using text-based email clients such as Mutt.
Some Microsoft email clients allow rich formatting using RTF, but unless the recipient is guaranteed to have a compatible email client this should be avoided.
In order to ensure that HTML sent in an email is rendered properly by the recipient's client software, an additional header must be specified when sending: "Content-type: text/html". Most email programs send this header automatically.
Messages are exchanged between hosts using the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol with software programs called mail transfer agents (MTAs); and delivered to a mail store by programs called mail delivery agents (MDAs, also sometimes called local delivery agents, LDAs). Users can retrieve their messages from servers using standard protocols such as POP or IMAP, or, as is more likely in a large corporate environment, with a proprietary protocol specific to Novell Groupwise, Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange Servers. Webmail interfaces allow users to access their mail with any standard web browser, from any computer, rather than relying on an email client. Programs used by users for retrieving, reading, and managing email are called mail user agents (MUAs).
Mail can be stored on the client, on the server side, or in both places. Standard formats for mailboxes include Maildir and mbox. Several prominent email clients use their own proprietary format and require conversion software to transfer email between them. Server-side storage is often in a proprietary format but since access is through a standard protocol such as IMAP, moving email from one server to another can be done with any MUA supporting the protocol.
Accepting a message obliges an MTA to deliver it, and when a message cannot be delivered, that MTA must send a bounce message back to the sender, indicating the problem.
Upon reception of email messages, email client applications save messages in operating system files in the file system. Some clients save individual messages as separate files, while others use various database formats, often proprietary, for collective storage. A historical standard of storage is the mbox format. The specific format used is often indicated by special filename extensions:
Some applications (like Apple Mail) leave attachments encoded in messages for searching while also saving separate copies of the attachments. Others separate attachments from messages and save them in a specific directory.
Mobile devices, such as cell phones and tablet computers, commonly have the ability to receive e-mail. Since users may always have their mobile device with them, users may access e-mail significantly faster on these devices than through other methods, such as desktop computers or laptops.
The URI scheme, as registered with the IANA, defines the mailto: scheme for SMTP email addresses. Though its use is not strictly defined, URLs of this form are intended to be used to open the new message window of the user's mail client when the URL is activated, with the address as defined by the URL in the To: field.
This is the type of email that most users are familiar with. Many free email providers host their serves as web-based email (e.g. Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, AOL). This allows users to log into the email account by using a web browser to send and receive their email. Its main disadvantage is the need to be connected to the internet while using it. Other software tools exist which integrate parts of the webmail functionality into the OS (e.g. creating messages directly from third party applications via MAPI).
POP3 is the acronym for Post Office Protocol 3. It is a leading email account type on the Internet. In a POP3 email account, email messages are downloaded to the client device (i.e. a computer) and then they are deleted from the mail server. It is difficult to save and view messages on multiple devices. Also, the messages sent from the computer are not copied to the Sent Items folder on the devices. The messages are deleted from the server to make room for more incoming messages. POP supports simple download-and-delete requirements for access to remote mailboxes (termed maildrop in the POP RFC's). Although most POP clients have an option to leave messages on the server after downloading a copy of them, most e-mail clients using POP3 simply connect, retrieve all messages, store them on the client device as new messages, delete them from the server, and then disconnect. Other protocols, notably IMAP, (Internet Message Access Protocol) provide more complete and complex remote access to typical mailbox operations. Many e-mail clients support POP as well as IMAP to retrieve messages; however, fewer Internet Service Providers (ISPs) support IMAP.][
IMAP refers to Internet Message Access Protocol. It is an alternative to the POP3 email. With an IMAP account, a user's account has access to mail folders on the mail server and can use any compatible device to read messages, as long as such a device can access the server. It shows the headers of messages, the sender and the subject and the device needs to request to download specific messages. Usually mail is saved on a mail server, therefore it is safer and it is backed up on an email server.
Messaging Application Programming Interface (MAPI) is a messaging architecture and a Component Object Model based API for Microsoft Windows.
Flaming occurs when a person sends a message with angry or antagonistic content. The term is derived from the use of the word Incendiary to describe particularly heated email discussions. Flaming is assumed to be more common today because of the ease and impersonality of email 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.
Also known as "email fatigue", email bankruptcy is when a user ignores a large number of email 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. Harvard University law professor Lawrence Lessig is credited with coining this term, but he may only have popularized it.
Email was widely accepted by the business community as the first broad electronic communication medium and was the first 'e-revolution' in business communication. Email is very simple to understand and like postal mail, email 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 allows the small business user to have multiple users' email IDs with just one email connection.
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 email. The use of email is increasing due to increasing levels of globalisation – labour division and outsourcing amongst other things. Email can lead to some well-known problems:
Despite these disadvantages, email has become the most widely used medium of communication within the business world. In fact, a 2010 study on workplace communication, found that 83% of U.S. knowledge workers felt that email was critical to their success and productivity at work.
Research suggests that email marketing can be viewed as useful by consumers if it contains information such as special sales offerings and new product information. Offering interesting hyperlinks or generic information on consumer trends is less useful. This research by Martin et al. (2003) also shows that if consumers find email marketing useful, they are likely to visit a store, thereby overcoming limitations of Internet marketing such as not being able to touch or try on a product.
Despite its name implying that its use is faster than either postal (physical) mail or telephone calls, correspondence over email often varies incredibly steeply — ranging from communication that is indeed semi-instant (often the fastest when a person is already sitting in front of a computer with their email program open, or when the person has email services automatically set up to speedily check for new messages on their mobile phone) to communication that can quite literally take weeks or even months to garner a response. In the case of the latter, it often proves much more rapid to call the person via telephone or via some other means of audio. Therefore, as a rule, unless one's workplace or social circle already communicates heavily via email in a rapid manner, a person should assume that email runs a perpetual risk of actually being slower as a communication mode than either mobile phone or text messaging communication.][
This general rule of thumb is often perplexing to those who use email heavily but whose colleagues and friends do not. Meanwhile, some people, due to exasperation with not getting responses to urgent messages, may eventually decline to use email with any regularity at all, and may be put in the sometimes-awkward position of having to notify their friends and colleagues who do use email regularly, that this is not a good way to reach them.
Email messages may have one or more attachments, i.e., MIME parts intended to provide copies of files. Attachments serve the purpose of delivering binary or text files of unspecified size. In principle there is no technical intrinsic restriction in the InternetMessage Format, SMTP protocol or MIME limiting the size or number of attachments. In practice, however, email service providers implement various limitations on the permissible size of files or the size of an entire message.
Furthermore, due to technical reasons, often a small attachment can increase in size when sent, which can be confusing to senders when trying to assess whether they can or cannot send a file by email, and this can result in their message being rejected.
As larger and larger file sizes are being created and traded, many users are either forced to upload and download their files using an FTP server, or more popularly, use online file sharing facilities or services, usually over web-friendly HTTP, in order to send and receive them.
A December 2007 New York Times blog post described information overload 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 start-ups focused on email really eliminates the problem of email overload because none helps us prepare replies". GigaOm posted a similar article in September 2010, highlighting research that found 57% of knowledge workers were overwhelmed by the volume of email they received. Technology investors reflect similar concerns.
In October 2010, CNN published an article titled "Happy Information Overload Day" that compiled research on email overload from IT companies and productivity experts. According to Basex, the average knowledge worker receives 93 emails a day. Subsequent studies have reported higher numbers. Marsha Egan, an email productivity expert, called email technology both a blessing and a curse in the article. She stated, "Everyone just learns that they have to have it dinging and flashing and open just in case the boss e-mails," she said. "The best gift any group can give each other is to never use e-mail urgently. If you need it within three hours, pick up the phone."
The usefulness of email is being threatened by four phenomena: email bombardment, spamming, phishing, and email worms.
Spamming is unsolicited commercial (or bulk) email. Because of the minuscule cost of sending email, spammers can send hundreds of millions of email 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.
Email worms use email as a way of replicating themselves into vulnerable computers. Although the first email worm affected UNIX computers, the problem is most common today on the Microsoft Windows operating system.
The combination of spam and worm programs results in users receiving a constant drizzle of junk email, which reduces the usefulness of email 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 email. 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.][
Email spoofing occurs when the header information of an email is altered to make the message appear to come from a known or trusted source. It is often used as a ruse to collect personal information.
Email bombing is the intentional sending of large volumes of messages to a target address. The overloading of the target email address can render it unusable and can even cause the mail server to crash.
Today it can be important to distinguish between Internet and internal email systems. Internet email may travel and be stored on networks and computers without the sender's or the recipient's control. During the transit time it is possible that third parties read or even modify the content. Internal mail systems, in which the information never leaves the organizational network, may be more secure, although information technology personnel and others whose function may involve monitoring or managing may be accessing the email of other employees.
Email privacy, without some security precautions, can be compromised because:
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, SMEmail, 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.
The original SMTP mail service provides limited mechanisms for tracking a transmitted 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. (A complete Message Tracking mechanism was also defined, but it never gained traction; see RFCs 3885 through 3888.)
Many ISPs now deliberately disable non-delivery reports (NDRs) and delivery receipts due to the activities of spammers:
There are a number of systems that allow the sender to see if messages have been opened. The receiver could also let the sender know that the emails have been opened through an "Okay" button. A check sign can appear in the sender's screen when the receiver's "Okay" button is pressed.
The U.S. federal government has been involved in email in several different ways.
Starting in 1977, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) recognized that electronic mail and electronic transactions posed a significant threat to First Class mail volumes and revenue. Therefore, the USPS initiated an experimental email service known as E-COM. Electronic messages were transmitted to a post office, printed out, and delivered as hard copy. 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. Both the Postal Regulatory 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.
The early ARPANET dealt with multiple email clients that had various, and at times incompatible, formats. For example, in the Multics, the "@" sign meant "kill line" and anything before the "@" sign was ignored, so Multics users had to use a command-line option to specify the destination system. The Department of Defense DARPA desired to have uniformity and interoperability for email and therefore funded efforts to drive towards unified inter-operable 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" (November 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 email 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" (August 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 forbade commercial traffic. In 1988, Vint Cerf arranged for an interconnection of MCI Mail with NSFNET on an experimental basis. The following year Compuserve email interconnected with NSFNET. Within a few years the commercial traffic restriction was removed from NSFNETs AUP, and NSFNET was privatised.
In the late 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission grew concerned with fraud transpiring in email, 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 U.S. federal agencies have also exercised jurisdiction including the Department of Justice and the Secret Service.
NASA has provided email capabilities to astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle and International Space Station since 1991 when a Macintosh Portable was used aboard Space Shuttle mission STS-43 to send the first email via AppleLink. Today astronauts aboard the International Space Station have email capabilities through the via wireless networking throughout the station and are connected to the ground at 3 Mbit/s Earth to station and 10 Mbit/s station to Earth, comparable to home DSL connection speeds.