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Email: The Future of Email...Is There a Future?

I recently participated in an online think-tank with researchers, futurists and IT managers that yielded some interesting conclusions about the future of email and spam junk email.

New technologies in computers will emerge in the next couple of years that will help bring a bit more civilization to the world of email. Improved spam identification will filter most of the spam junk email, while becoming more effective as it automatically learns the latest spamming and phishing spoofs. Routinely encrypted email and vast online, searchable archives of every message sent are also not too far off in the future.

It is anticipated that new technologies in computers, plus economic and political pressures, will eventually reduce the current glut of malware (which includes viruses, worms, spam, phishing, spyware and adware) to virtually nothing, or a pesky annoyance, at worst.

Today, the struggle against spam junk email, phishing and malware are pretty much at a stand-off, but according to engineers at Microsoft, the amount of spam is starting to plateau, which is a good indication that the industry is beginning to take a bite out of the financial incentives behind the spam business.

Computer engineers and researchers tell us that eliminating today’s e-nnoyances is not so much a technical problem; it's more of a business and political problem. Whoever comes up with the “Holy Grail” solution to help the future of email and stop the spam problem is destined to make a fortune, so there are literally billions of dollars on the line.

Some interesting technologies are in various stages of development today to change the future of email. For example, Microsoft is moving ahead with its Sender ID Framework, which verifies that a message was actually sent from a server authorized to send mail for the domain owner.

An experimental system at Hewlett Packard’s labs can trace specific, identifiable email paths from the sender. Yahoo! And Cisco Systems last year submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force a proposed standard called DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), which, like Sender ID, is designed to guard against spam junk email, spoofing and phishing by authenticating every email sender.

In addition to Sender ID, Microsoft has its SmartScreen filter, which uses statistical techniques to learn and identify what's spam and what isn't. At Microsoft Research, 40 engineers are working exclusively on the development of new email technologies.

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Despite extensive research and development, some observers say new technologies in computers and the future of email can never completely cure email's problems, and that economic and (gulp) regulatory intervention will be needed, as well.

As we wring our hands and gnash our collective teeth over some of the technological challenges we face today, it’s important to keep in mind that email is only in its adolescence. The problems of spam, phishing and email-borne malware will be conquered in the future of email. Despite its global popularity and billions of messages sent and received daily, email is still one of the emerging new technologies in computers with some bugs yet to be worked out.

We’re all destined to struggle with the problem of spam and viruses and spyware for the short-term, but email, the Internet, and its related technologies have become such an integral part of society today that we have no choice but to endure annoyances and inconveniences that will some day be laughable footnotes to the history of the Internet.

All it requires is a little perspective: Years ago, cars required crank-starting, televisions required magnifying lenses to enlarge the screen image, and it wasn’t so long ago that we ducked into the corner telephone booth to use the pay phone to make a call. Then along came cell phones and our new mantra became, “Can you hear me now?”

Times and new technologies in computers continue to change, and so it will be with the future of email and the Internet. Call me a cockeyed optimist if you must, but I firmly believe the best is yet to come.

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