e-mail is a mess

There is no reasonable doubt that electronic mail is one of the killer applications of the Internet. And it‘s widespread use is a strong indicator. The „e-mail address“ is becoming more and more the single identification scheme that has long been the telephone number and this is no surprise.

But there are three things that are really making e-mail less and less useful every day. One is of course the spiced meat and porn we are all suffering from. The other are inherent in the system itself: the missing privacy and the lack of adherence to standards.

Have you ever got mail from this friendly little guy called „mailer daemon“? It just stroke again. I got mail from somebody whose mail address is registered with the german mail provider web.de. The problem is, that the mail address she has registered is actually an illegal mail address if you look at the corresponding RFCs. But web.de doesn‘t care, they just hand out these addresses. So when I tried to reply, my mail subsystem rejected my message. So I have no chance of replying at all. It is a mess.

Another catastrophic thing is that the replies of these „mailer daemons“ are so cryptic, usually english only and stuffed with techie terms that even techies have problem to understand. And there seems to be no solution to this problem because providers don‘t care. It is a mess.

I guess this will one day be the big chance for instant messaging. If you look at new emerging protocols like Jabber, you see that instant messaging seems to be ready to take up on where mail seems to be stuck: well defined flow, well defined message structure, well defined error messages. This is where mail must go to. I have just no clue who will be the hero that saves us all.

UPDATE: The comments below document that web.de seems to have removed the problem of giving out non-conforming mail addresses. At least this is true for names ending in „.“

The other problem, names starting with a dash („-„), seems to be related to UNIX in general. As mail addresses are usually passed to various command line tools, a dash in front of a word is a potential security hazard. Wietse Venema, author of the popular postfix mail system, has commented on this issue and provides an option within the software which is switched off by default.

So my whole posting was somehow born out of confusion, but it also supports my point that the whole Internet mail subsystem is far too complicated to be able to work flawlessly by default.

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