Life after email

Volume 9, Issue 100; 20 Oct 2006; last modified 08 Oct 2010

Reports indicate that as a social phenomenon, email is dying out. As a technical phenomenon, spam is killing it. So what's an old codger to do?

We ought not to heap reproaches on old age, seeing that we all hope to reach it.


As a social phenomenon, the end of email has been widely reported. The next generation doesn't use it. As a technical phenomenon, spam is a persistent threat. Spam's been a lot worse in the last couple of weeks (no doubt the reason I started thinking about these things); apparently the spammers have concocted a strategy that circumvents Bayesian filtering (it's only temporary, I'm sure, but the next victory in spam filtering is only temporary too).

What's next? IM, Wikis, web forums instead of email? Bleh!

Maybe I'm just too old to learn new tricks, but I want correspondence pushed to me (or I want the appearance of push, anyway) and I want to read and edit it locally, in the application of my choosing, not in some browser form.

It occurs to me that with a little work, Atom might function as a replacement for POP/IMAP and the Atom publishing protocol might replace SMTP. I can see a glimmer of how I might move forward while mostly preserving a couple of decades of work habits. As usual, the social problems are larger than the technical ones.

Google reveals that these are not new ideas, so this essay is little more than a chance for me to vent a bit (sorry about that). I'll see if I can sketch out some of my ideas in a little more detail. Or maybe I'll see if I can integrate Atom and the Atom Publishing Protocol into my Emacs mail reader…


Have you tried greylisting? It is working pretty well for me because apparently speaking proper SMTP is still too expensive for most spammers. Let's see how long it stays that way.

—Posted by Martin Jansen on 20 Oct 2006 @ 06:06 UTC #

...and I want to read and edit it locally...

And file it.

—Posted by Ed Davies on 20 Oct 2006 @ 06:56 UTC #

It's interesting that among the potential replacements for email that you mention, none can replace FTP for file transfer. I think I saw some file transfer options on an IM client menu, but I've never used them. More importantly for this discussion of the next generation, my thirteen-year old daughter doesn't them. While she uses IM to communicate with her friends (which I don't mind, because I've heard that traditionally teenage girls tie up the phone instead) guess what she uses for file transfer: e-mail! When finishing some homework, she e-mails it to herself so that she can get it at school and print it there. I never suggested this; I of course showed her some point-and-click FTP, which she does know how to use, but she prefers e-mail. So while email's use for communication of messages may be diminishing, it's still used, just for new purposes.

Remember when trend-watchers started noting young people who had cell phones and didn't even own a land line? When they start noting young people who don't even have an e-mail address, then you can start worrying about the death of e-mail. I wouldn't lose any sleep just yet.

—Posted by Bob DuCharme on 20 Oct 2006 @ 07:57 UTC #

I've also had the idea of using Atom, and the Atom Publishing Protocol. APP is basically a good semantic way to do message transfer over HTTP. Exactly what we would need for an email replacement. Just set up a APP endpoint that is write-only for the public, and that you can read. Make sure it requires authentication of some sort, of course :) I think there's a lot to be done to make it really feasible, but it could be the future of mail. It inverts a lot of principles of email though... it will take some good thinking and adjustment to do it well.

—Posted by Dave Brondsema on 20 Oct 2006 @ 09:26 UTC #

In the same vein I recently came across Internet Mail 2000. When you boil it down you've got Atom Publishing Protocol and some kind of trackback analogue.

—Posted by Brendan Taylor on 20 Oct 2006 @ 11:19 UTC #

There's a Google Video presentation by the guy who did, talking about that: Turning Email Upside Down: RSS/Email and IM2000.

IM2000 (Internet Mail 2000) is a concept by D. J. Bernstein of qmail fame: "Mail storage is the sender's responsibility."

—Posted by Manuel Simoni on 21 Oct 2006 @ 05:34 UTC #

So how exactly would using a different protocol (Atom) than the established one (SMTP) solve the spam problem?

I do not see how that would solve things at all. Spam is a big problem on blogs nowadays, too, and changing the mail protocols (which technically work just fine and are well supported everywhere!) does not seem a solution at all. (I’d like to see the problem solved though :).)

In Japan, they use email for text messages on mobile phones (note: it’s extremely popular among ‘the next generation’, just like SMS is in most other countries, I wonder if the ‘wide reports’ considered that). This is all very nice, but you have to be extremely careful to avoid that your mobile mail address is picked up by spammers. Every message that you receive costs money, and although the providers offer anti-spam tools, it still sucks. And once you get on the spam-lists, there is no real way out of it except for changing your email-address.


p.s. on my blog I have a similar CAPTCHA system as you have (using the ‘what colour is an orange’ question that Eric Meyer suggested :)), but the nice thing is: it’s invisible to most users, because I let JavaScript fill it in (and hide it). Now this may be only a temporary solution, but I hope it’ll keep away the spammers for quite a while. Before, I didn’t get any spam at all; the spammers were probably mainly scanning for signatures of well-known systems like Wordpress, but now they seem to have become more sophisticated as they also managed to post comments on my custom-made blog system.

—Posted by Laurens Holst on 21 Oct 2006 @ 08:36 UTC #

Is the problem about the used (used and used ;) ) Protocols? Or is it about handling *not identified* communications. The good thing with emails is that you do not need a preliminary authentication between the two parties and this is also the weakness.

In Weblogs, even based on Atom, it is the same, you can have no spam, if you accept only comments from people you know, or try to trigger CAPTCHA system like here. But if you leave a possibility for non identified commenters, you end up with SPAM.

So I'm not sure it is about the technical problem, but more about the modalities of the communication. You *can* now have a spam free email, it has a social cost on unexpected emails, people you do not know a priori.

—Posted by karl on 21 Oct 2006 @ 10:48 UTC #

Since APP uses HTTP, you have a direct client-server connection, but SMTP allows for mail relays. With the direct connection over HTTP, you can enforce authentication better (by knowing the originating host, using a form of HTTP Authentication, and/or other methods that may be easier to implement in HTTP given its widespread usage and the fast evolution of the web compared to SMTP). I think authentication is key to stopping spam. If you have identity and authenticity, you can apply a trust framework, such as Konfidi.

—Posted by Dave Brondsema on 22 Oct 2006 @ 02:19 UTC #

Hi Norm,

I agree with all of this. Please see for more information.

—Posted by M. David Peterson on 22 Oct 2006 @ 10:33 UTC #

Just use blog comments..?

—Posted by Danny on 22 Oct 2006 @ 09:49 UTC #


Interesting you should suggest this... Almost finished with a post to the LLUP dev list. I wonder if we're thinking along the same lines?

Have a few things ahead of it on my "must deliver first" ToDo list, but expect the post sometime later today.

—Posted by M. David Peterson on 23 Oct 2006 @ 12:06 UTC #

Another alternative to email this time based on XMPP is thought about as well. I think XMPP as a messaging protocol may be better suited to this task of replacing email than Atom. Atom-based email solution seems to me like yet another non-nail which is poorly understood from the perspective of thinking about hammer only.

—Posted by Matej Cepl on 05 Mar 2007 @ 02:04 UTC #

Why not both? Atom over XMPP. Or the "email" itself is atom, and you get notifications by xmpp. Or something.

—Posted by Aurelian on 24 May 2007 @ 07:28 UTC #