Few observers have a better view of that ocean of gab called e-mail than Mark Sunner. The chief technology officer of e-mail management company MessageLabs, Sunner oversees a network that processes 4.5 million missives each day. Servers operated and maintained by MessageLabs manage mail delivery and routing for a number of companies, including Bank of England and Condé Nast Publications.
In fact, all of MessageLabs' customers are corporations whose daily e-mail output and inflow has soared with the growth of the Web. "E-mail usage has increased massively in the last couple of years," he says. Indeed, MessageLabs estimates that it has gone from 10 a day per employee as recently as two years ago to more like 20 or 30 now.
The implications for Corporate America are equally huge. According to e-mail researcher and consultant David Ferris, companies can expect the volume of e-mail coursing through their servers to grow 60% to 80% in 2002. And as individual messages grow in size -- they're now more likely to contain memory-hogging HTML code similar to that used to display Web pages -- companies could end up paying 100% to 150% more just this year on systems to store and manage those messages. That's why tech consultancy Radicati Group expects demand for software that manages e-mail, such as Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes, to grow from $2.6 billion in sales today to $4.4 billion by 2005.
PORNO BARRAGE. Too much of this money will be spent to control pure junk. About 20% of the e-mail MessageLabs manages is unsolicited spam, according to Sunner -- who adds that about 1.25% of all the e-mail his company moves contains pornographic attachments. Already, the cost of handling spam is estimated at $8.6 billion worldwide, according to a 2001 European Union study. And the barrage of pornographic spam has some companies worried that employees might sue on grounds of sexual harassment arising from exposure to unwanted sleaze.
Moreover, virus outbreaks spurred by contaminated e-mail now occur more frequently, spreading digital pathogens that add trauma to the lives of harried tech-support staffs. They also find themselves dealing with the computer crashes of equally harried employees, who increasingly use their cluttered in-boxes as de facto file cabinets.
None of this means e-mail has lost its sheen as the killer app of the Wired Age. Executives see it is an invaluable means of communicating with far-flung offices and employees. But the pain of dealing with e-mail has caused many to ask whether the killer app will kill them, too.
A SWAMPED SENATE. How bad can it get? Take the situation at the U.S. Senate. Granted, that's an extreme case because of the high visibility of legislators, who are supposed to stay in touch with their constituents. But probably no one envisioned what an impact e-mail would have: The Senate now receives 1 million to 2 million e-mail messages each day, says V.A. Shiva, the CEO of e-mail marketing and filtering software company EchoMail. Assuming that each message requires one minute to answer, that means an average employee could answer 500 or so in a day. Responding to all of them manually would require an extra 2,000 to 4,000 federal employees -- clearly not in the cards.
Such rip-roaring growth is causing significant changes in the way businesses deal with e-mail. The largest free Web-based mail system, Hotmail, now has a setting that allows its users to accept e-mail only from people they've added to a list of trusted recipients. Others discourage their users from opening bandwidth-hogging HTML mail, in hopes that marketers will be discouraged from sending it in the first place.
Many companies have decided to take similar measures. That's what Mike Apgar learned last year when the boutique ISP he runs, Speakeasy.net, decided to send out an HTML e-mail with important information for his subscribers. A vocal minority of the small businesses that used a Speakeasy broadband account as their main means of Net connectivity complained that they never got the message because they were no longer accepting HTML mail.
BETTER GEAR. Some companies are setting policies limiting the size of attachments that their e-mail systems will accept -- and even limiting types of files. Where in the past mail administrators would screen out only files ending in .exe -- because of their frequent association with viruses -- now they may also filter PowerPoint attachments from all but a few addressees.
Fortunately for companies that face this challenge, the hardware for handling e-mail is improving. A growing number of companies, including Mirapoint, IronWorks, and Cisco Systems, offers servers specifically optimized to handle heavy e-mail flows. And more companies are opting to totally outsource e-mail services to other companies, such as MessageLabs or CriticalPath.
The newest hardware and software from companies such as CyberPatrol and Net Nanny can supposedly even screen porn, based on flesh-tone analysis of attachments -- although the jury remains out among system administrators as to whether these packages work well or end up blocking too much legitimate mail. A rising number of companies are specializing specifically in screening spam, such as Postini and BrightMail. The U.S. Senate has installed EchoMail's automated e-mail-categorization and -response system, which can accurately, most of the time, answer many basic Senate questions without a human lifting a finger, says Shiva.
NO TRICKS. Spam and porn mail are also under increasing attack by legitimate e-mail marketers. The Direct Marketing Assn., an industry trade group, adopted new rules in late January that require all marketing e-mail to contain a special character that can serve as a unique identifier. The new rule is aimed at screening out spammers and creating an easy way for receiving companies to identify legitimate e-mail.
E-mail marketers are increasingly eschewing the tactic of broadcasting sales pitches to millions of e-mail addresses provided for by third-party list compilers. "In past years, most e-mail marketing wasn't targeted and wasn't personalized. These were pretty much e-mail blasts. That's changing fast," says Bill Chambers, a senior analyst with customer-relationship-management consultancy Doculabs.
For example, when EchoMail designed a Halloween campaign in 2001 for confectioner Hershey's, it set up a pilot Web site, trickortreats.com, designed to acquire e-mail addresses with a holiday promo. On the site's front page, the company clearly demarcated different sign-up sections for kids under 13, in compliance with the Child Online Protection Act. If a minor entered an address, Hershey required the kid's parent to sign on as well -- and thus give permission. Only then would the company start sending e-mail with promo offers tied to purchases. Even further, Hershey's guaranteed that every future e-mail would be sent not only to the child but also to the parents.
UNTOUCHABLE. E-mail recipients are getting smarter, too -- learning to configure filters that let through particularly important messages and relegate less suitable ones -- such as those containing foul language in the subject line -- directly to the digital trash. The latest versions of Microsoft's Outlook, Qualcomm's Eudora mail client, and Netscape's Communicator e-mail system all have fairly advanced capabilities that let users control to a significant degree what goes where in their mail systems -- and what never arrives.
In short, most inhabitants of the e-mail universe -- from companies to technology players to e-mail marketers and individual recipients -- are rapidly altering the way they use the medium. That goes beyond crude protective steps of the recent past, such as securing multiple e-mail addresses in order to misdirect spammers into little-used accounts.
And it goes beyond companies enforcing policies that requier an employee's in-box to be emptied after a set period of time. Rather, businesses are now looking to software that can allow users to designate several folders as untouchable -- and that can wipe out the rest of their e-mail after a certain period. Likewise, e-mail marketers are looking to create registries of legitimate operations that will keep spammers -- theoretically, at least -- out of much of the U.S. e-mail system.
HEADY FEELING. Naturally, ISPs and corporations are also bulking up their e-mail capabilities. After September 11, Hotmail decided to augment its mail server capacities to improve the system's performance and ensure that under no circumstances would it shut down, if at all possible.
Will all these changes turn back the tide of e-mail overload? Probably not. And no doubt, people will rely on e-mail even more in the future, as the number of active users climbs in the U.S. and abroad. For all the pain that implies for corporations and for all the untold amounts of junk, don't expect new habits to die easily. After all, it's a heady feeling when everyone out there is literally only an e-mail away. By Alex Salkever, with reporting by John Cady and Susan Zegel in New York