Email: The Original Cloud

from the things-change dept

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This is the first of a series of posts looking at how email has changed over the past decade-plus. These posts are sponsored by As always with sponsored posts, the sponsor has no editorial say in the actual content of the post.

Email is one of those parts of the internet that have been around for quite some time, and is considered a (if not, the) core piece of how many people communicate. But, if you actually look at the history of email, it's quite amazing how much it's changed over time -- bouncing from a server based setup in the early days to a client/server version and these days back up onto the internet as a "cloud computing" service (the buzzword version of server based). Even if we're just looking at the past 15 years or so, from when web-based email services like Rocketmail and Hotmail first hit the scene, it's quite amazing how much they've changed. But also fascinating is how web-based email pre-dated "cloud services" by more than a decade, but in many ways are one of the key "cloud" services out there.

Ah, the bad old days...
Hell, just the change from having to load a new page for each click to today's dynamic/AJAXy interfaces changed the way web email worked. But one of the bigger changes in my mind was the massive expansion in storage. Historically, many people were pretty careful to regularly delete all of their emails to avoid hitting the very small storage limits associated with web email accounts. In fact, a decade ago, I remember conversations about how "expensive" storage was, leading the online accounts to have limits of around 25 megs. The world of online email changed on April Fool's Day in 2004 -- with a gigabyte of storage (this was so much larger than anything anyone else was offering that some thought it might be an April Fool's joke). When it was launched, Google said that people shouldn't ever have to worry about deleting emails again -- and, in fact, Gmail originally buried the delete button such that it was difficult to find.

Of course, as with many innovations, user demand quickly grew to match what was available, and having so much storage started to change the way people viewed email -- not as something where you just kept a few things, but one where you could store your entire email history... and more. The leaders in webmail at the time, Microsoft (who had bought Hotmail) and Yahoo (who had bought Rocketmail), responded to Gmail by expanding their storage as well -- and that's only increased time and time again since then. Both Microsoft and Yahoo eventually went to (virtually) unlimited offerings, while Gmail has boosted its free email storage up to ~10 gigs.

Suddenly, with significantly more storage, new opportunities opened up. Email could become more of a combined task list/timeline for your life. There was no real reason to ever get rid of anything -- and that included being able to store attachments and important files, as more and more people discovered. Rather than just being about email, web-based email really did become the very first truly useful "cloud" service, letting people go way beyond the restrictions of older client/server email systems.

Historically, when computing resources become abundant, it becomes natural for people to "waste" them, and, as such, discover completely new and unexpected uses, and that's absolutely been true of email with such massive storage and the availability of access from anywhere. While "cloud computing" is a more recent term, webmail programs really became a key part of a cloud strategy long before that term came about, and part of that was because of the amount of storage available. Combine "virtually" unlimited storage with a communications interface and you can start to build in more integrated features -- including things like document viewing, storage and creation. Email starts to fulfill its potential as more than just a communication tool to a central life manager.

With lots of companies now pushing cloud services, it still seems like web-based email, the original cloud service, really has the leg up on being the true interface for "the cloud" upon which many other useful cloud services will be built.

Filed Under: cloud computing, email

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  1. icon
    Tim K (profile), 26 Sep 2012 @ 7:20pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Well shit, you mean to tell me people don't pay others to trash their products? Damn, you must be smart. Clearly they thought their product wasn't a POS and Mike wouldn't trash it (even though this is an article about email evolution not Outlook), but just because he's not trashing it doesn't mean he's selling out. If the MPAA created an awesome streaming service and wanted Mike to write about it, would he be selling out for doing so if he didn't trash it despite it being awesome (I know, them doing something awesome not very likely to happen). But if they payed him to write an article about Dodd's (which I don't think would be a good idea, but they have done dumber things) I'm pretty sure he'd continue to say the same things he's been saying.

    In this article he's talking about how email has evolved. I think that relates to Techdirt, so, no, I don't see this as selling out

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