Way back in 1971 an engineer named Raymond Tomlinson created something called Email to be used on what was known as the ARPANET. Back then Email could only be sent in between users on the same machine, and so Tomlinson separated the users by inserting the @ symbol to separate the user from the machine. And the rest is, as they say, history. 

First use of @

Where We're @

Looking at all the communicative platforms today one simply has to wonder when Facebook, Twitter, or some newfangled system of instant messenger will take the place of Email. While Comscore and other analysis firms point to the relative decline in Email usage worldwide as a sign the venerable @ is dwaning, mail deliveries have grown continually to the point where nearly 2 billion Emails are being sent out daily. Daily, I said. 

One funny metric I noticed in researching this article was that Comscore and others publish data showing both the decline and growth of Email usage. Depending on how one looks at numbers, such correlations often appear, it's true. Another such analysis by Litmus Email analytics just published reflect the proliferation of mails onto the mobile user market. So, those young users who stopped sending mails from the desktop, they now send them via smart devices in the following ratios: 

  1. iPhone - 23% down 0.3%
  2. Outlook - 19% up 0.85%
  3. Apple iPad - 12% up 0.25%
  4. Apple Mail - 8% down 0.04%
  5. Google Android - 8% up 0.09%
  6. Outlook.com - 7% down 0.11%
  7. Yahoo Mail - 6% up 0.07%
  8. Gmail - 4% dowm 0.21%
  9. Windows Live Mail - 3% up 0.2%
  10. Windows Mail - 2% up 0.15%

Where We're Going

Figuring out that email usage is going up proportionate to the digital scape's population is not rocket science. But noting migrations to new platforms and kinds of machines does not explain why Email will never die either. Part of the reason we'll be attached forever via some form of Email can be explained technically, while the better part of Email longevity is actually illustrated by Tomlinson's "@" symbology. 

Technically we probably won't have anything as capable as Email that can deliver the depth of messages so often needed by users. In short, even some futuristic Facebook instant messaging tool will simply convert your unread or lengthy IM into a form of Email. Mobile, dictated voice, new age video capture n send, whatever, your communication is going to go from one kind of machine to another - and using a form of @ to designate the connect. An Email, uh hum. 

And even more compellingly permanent than Big Data numbers associated with Email, the at "@" symbol itself represents what the communicative forms permanence with us. For almost 500 years now our at symbol has been used to indicate just the connective point Tomlinson branded Emails with. Yes, @ is a lot older than 1971. The first known use in context was in between a Florentine merchant named Francesco Lapi to help describe a cargo from Seville to Rome (top image). @ is what's known as visual metaphor, or a form of hieroglyph which is an extremely powerful suggestive symbol. Why, you say, is symbolism important for us to understand here? Because the at symbol "@" Tomlinson so easily applied to machine communication canot be abbreviated literally, nor can Email. 

Phil @ (at] whatever is me connected to you. You try and shorten even @ in any fashion. The symbol is even more abbreviated than the sound it makes when spoken. And anything that we can come up with delivered in between you and me? Well, that's an Email my friends. As long as we use machines, and as long as we are separate from them, something like @ will connect us all. Food for thought. 

As for "what's next", Tomlinson himself expressed what we'll experience impact wise in this NPR article. Whatever replaces Email will be the unimaginable now. 

Image credit: The Seville script at top - screenshot courtesy The @ Book by Patrik Sneyd