Early Days of Corporate Email: Some Personal Observations

Curator's note: We're delighted to receive this piece from Ralph Ehlers, which is the museum's first piece by an IT implementer. We hope to have many more contributions from IT professionals.

Ralph was in charge of the email system at ABB and Roche, two of Europe's largest businesses. He was also chairman of the user working group at the EEMA (European Electronic Messaging Association) for many years--this was where we first got to know each other, around 1992. He has had much bleeding-edge experience with implementing very large systems, and with still-experimental technologies such as public key encryption. He has always been a perceptive observer of email technology, and the technologies that surround it.

Ralph plans to submit a series of blogs. His first contribution, below, talks about the early days of email. In further pieces, he plans to cover the following topics:  implementation approaches, the changing technologies (host versus LAN email) and their challenges, intercompany email (X.400 vs. SMTP), standardization on a single system and the maturity of the service, and new challenges (malware, spam, disclaimers, etc).--David Ferris

The first time I heard about something  like email was in 1981, at the end of the work for my PhD, when my fellow graduate students started sending each other simple text messages on the  brand new DEC Vax 780 of our research facility. They called the OS tool they used VAXmail. It was the first version of what later became known as VMSmail. My buddies used it just for fun, much in the way of an instant messaging system. The idea that this could be used for serious communication from office to office had simply not yet occurred to them. And how should it at that time? People didn’t have a terminal on their desks. They had to go to special terminal rooms whenever they wanted to create input to the computer.

About 5 years later, around 1986, when I was working as a consultant for scientific and technical computing at a large electrical engineering company in Switzerland (BBC), I again heard about email at a departmental meeting. My boss announced that the company was starting to introduce a messaging tool. He said that it could be used to send text from one person’s account to another one’s, somewhat like office mail, but that it wasn’t clear to him what real purpose that should serve. And he also emphasized that it would be available only to managers. At that time people in the IT department used to have terminals on their desks, but by far not the non-IT employees. To managers, the idea to have such a device on their desks was still alien, even more so for the aides to use by themselves. It wasn’t used very much.

While this was a personal experience, I believe that the attitude as well as the IT infrastructure and spread was rather common, at least in Europe and in industrial companies. Two years later, around 1988, however, the world really started to change. Electronic communication services and office automation started to blossom, the first PCs made their way into the company, and a merger with ASEA AB in Sweden  to form ABB  increased the need for better communications on all levels of the company.

The new company initially had more than 70,000 employees worldwide and had subsidiaries in many countries. I became responsible for network communications, which was just a fancy name for ‘messaging’, but it emphasized one important new aspect: with messaging, one could as easily communicate with a person at a remote site of the  company (provided that was connected to the network and had computer facilities) as with a local person in the next building.

ABB ran several  IBM mainframe computers, so we had an email system from IBM: DISOSS, running on the MVS operating system. I believe it had a user interface program for terminals, but the preferred user interface was a program on a DOS based PC, running on top of a ‘3270- terminal emulation’ program. It had a simple line interface. Our Swedish partner company also had IBM, but ran a messaging program called ‘MEMO’, developed by Verimation, a commercial spin-off from Volvo. These systems already had the core components of later, mature email systems: MTAs, message store and directory, every user had a mailbox for in and out and access to the directory.

As MEMO had advantages in reliability, operational effort and cost it soon won out over DISOSS and was defined as the company standard. However, some parts of the company were on Vax computers and ran VMSmail, communicating happily in splendid isolation. Nevertheless, with MEMO we had a robust, state of the art solution, which could be used by every person and site, who had access to the ‘corporate network’ (another concept which emerged at that time, rapidly linking the bigger sites of the company). The downside was that it looked a bit like having a solution in search for a problem: how could we get people to actually use it?

To be continued…

About the Author

Ralph Ehlers graduated with a PhD in Physics from RWTH Aachen, Germany, in 1981. Read full bio here.

One Comment

  1. Steve Moyer
    Posted January 20, 2012 at 5:17 PM | Permalink

    I programmed starting in the 1970’s. We used the TSO send message command to communicate with other users and the operations group, who were usually sealed in the data center. This was the earliest recollection I have of the electronic messaging that would become email. That followed with my use of Wang and Decmail in the 1980s, and AppleTalk. In the early 1990’s some obviously insane VP authorized my purchase of some microcomputer servers to host Microsoft mail, and with those I brought about the eventual demise of the secretarial pool at our company. So from a renegade use of the corporate mainframe to ask if work mates were free for lunch, to the contrived structures of the early dedicated office productivity systems, to chatty Apple Talk, to today, where email is so much part of our lives, I cannot conceive what we would do if it went away.

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