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THE CUTTING EDGE

An E-Mail Primer

May 27, 1996|JENNIFER OLDHAM

It probably snuck up on you. Postage and FedEx were easy and you had just conquered that voicemail thing. Then suddenly your name gained an "at" sign, dropped to lower case and was separated by dots (not periods, mind you, dots--try explaining that to your 75-year-old grammarian grandmother). Yes, you are now part of the e-mail world, estimated to be 100 million strong this year. And even if you've never even so much as typed http://, your mail, at least, is surfing the Net. The rundown:

Dissecting the address

The pieces of the address determine where a message will be sent and how it will get there. Each level in the address, which is actually a 32-bit number, is referred to as a domain. Although we read the address from beginning to end, computers read it backward:

jane.doe@acme.com

jane.doe is the user's ID.

The acme.com is the domain.

Subdomain @acme says that Jane Doe is at Acme Co. and that her mail goes through the Acme computer.

The subdomain .com says that Jane probably works for a commercial firm. A .edu would be an educational institution; a .org, a nonprofit or other organization; and a .gov is the designation for a government site.

How a message is sent

1. Once a message is typed and the "send" command hit, the computer treats it like a letter and places it in an electronic "envelope." This envelope is composed of data bits that identify what's in the message.

2. The message travels from the sender's computer to a host computer (This could be at the sender's company or at a commercial service such as America Online or CompuServe). The host computer reads the e-mail address to determine where it should be sent. It will work with several commercial servers so it can find the least busy route to send the message.

3. Once a commercial server has the message, it looks in its address book for the host computer of the addressee, such as acme.com. When the server finds the address, its sends the message to the host computer at Acme Co.

4. When the Acme computer receives the message, it uses a mathematical formula to count the number of bits making up the envelope to check and see if the message has been tampered with. After the safety check, it forwards the message to the addressee.

Trivia

In the early 1980s, e-mail was considered an oddity. Today many business people consider it as indispensable as the telephone and their morning coffee. Consumers are getting addicted too. Here are some highlights of the 20-year history of electronic mail:

* The first commercial electronic mail service, OnTyme, was developed in 1976. The system was a tough sell because most business people did not have computer terminals, prohibiting widespread use. OnTyme was actually faster than later models because messages were routed through one mainframe computer, rather than through many computers as they are today.

* Former President Carter helped introduce e-mail to the general public when he used a rudimentary e-mail system, which charged $4 a message, to coordinate strategies and speeches during his 1976 presidential campaign.

* 1984 was a landmark year in the growth of e-mail: Experts agreed on a standard for exchanging e-mail, eliminating dissimilar systems; the system as a whole passed the 1-million-users mark; and prices of personal computers dropped dramatically, sparking the personal computer revolution.

* Today, electronic mail is the most widely-used application on the Internet.

Sources: Electronic Messaging Assn.; Eric Faunce, Lotus Development Corp.; Dennis F. Galletta, associate professor of business administration, University of Pittsburgh; Al Lederer, professor of management information systems, University of Kentucky; Times and wire reports; Walter E. Ulrich, Arthur D. Little

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