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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fixing Email, and SPAM, for good

It seems most of my recent posts have been about email, messaging and Web 2.0, instead of Sonian's hosted archiving theme. This post continues the trend, and yes there is a method to the madness. Let's dust off the crystal ball and take a look ahead... to a future where our electronic communications (email) are reliable, secure and spam free.

ZDNet writer David Berlind posted An Open Letter to Email Vendors on his blog expressing (justified) frustration with the current anti-SPAM solutions. He, like many of us, have implemented a rube-goldberg-esque approach to keeping our mailboxes spam-free. The thinking behind this approach is to layer a couple of different anti-spam technologies from different vendors, working at gateway, server and desktop levels, to get the best possible filtering protection. But in reality it's not that simple or effective. Multiple quarantines and block and white lists create an administrative headache almost equivalent to the problem being solved in the first place. Maybe a possible explanation for our proclivity to use layers comes from our history with virus protection. Before SPAM was a real problem, email anti-virus was the big issue. And with virus control, a layered multi-vendor approach DOES work best.

The net net of it all is we shouldn't have to tolerate this SPAM madness that's purely a result of our own inaction and inability to come together as a unified group to solve the core deficiencies that plague SMTP-based email. The SMTP protocol has served us well (sort of), but it's time for a top-down, bottom-up reset. SMTP was created with the premise that people who access the Internet would be doing good and honorable activities. Unfortunately, as is true in other segments of our society, it only takes a few bad people to take advantage of a system designed with the assumption that people are good. (Think airport security check points for a painful corollary.)

SMTP-based email is failing us, and as a result, we're starting to see users find creative communication channels to get around all this "brokenness." High school, college and twenty-something professionals are using IM, SMS and social network internal messaging systems like Facebook to communicate with each other. With the latter, email notifications are used to signal when a message is waiting, but the actual back and forth correspondence occurs within the protected social network boundary.

If the messaging industry can't work together to solve SMTP problems in a coordinated manner, we will end up with a hodge-podge of different silo'd communication systems that provide rich functionality within themselves, but basic interoperability between each other.

My future for email wish list:

  • I get to choose my favorite email and calendar client technology - let's call this the "super client."
  • My super client is paired with a secure, reliable, hosted storage silo and processing engine. We'll call this the "super server." The super server is my "proxy" on the Internet.
  • Behind the scenes authentication and encryption ensure that I am the author of my own messages, and the system cant' be spoofed.
  • A protocol that looks a lot like RSS allows me to "syndicate" my outbox. Instead of pushing messages from one server to another like SMTP does now, the RSS-like magic protocol notifies other peoples' super servers I have shared content with them, and their super server retrieves the content. Like-wise their super servers notify my proxy content is waiting for me, and I can retrieve it as I like.
  • As the author of the content I retain ultimate control of my content's final disposition.
  • This system allows me to create content to share with one person, or a group, (think email) or the entire world (think blog.)
  • The super client is where I live (it could be a web app or a local application, it doesn't matter) - The super client is where I create my content (like this blog post,) or an email message to a friend. Or an instant message. They are all just forms of one to one or one to many communications.
Please share your ideas on how to fix email. We need massive, creative brainstorming to solve the problems.

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