A Brief History of Email
Emails have been a very powerful communication channel for many decades. It started with person-to-person email communications. While I don’t remember having an email address at IIT during my undergrad (1984-88), I definitely had one at Columbia during my graduate education. Email became the way I communicated with other friends in the US, while letters were still how I interacted with parents and others in India.
Somewhere along the way came the rise of business-to-person emails. Businesses found email as the perfect channel to send promotional content. Even some informational services started on email. I remember a service called Individual in the 1990s which offered daily custom news by email. Confirmations for transactions came on email. When I started IndiaWorld as an India-centric portal, I also had a twice daily “IndiaWorld Headlines” newsletter. We had our own open source email platform so sending emails was close to zero incremental cost.
During this period came the rise of free personal email inboxes. Before that, people had to subscribe to an ISP to get an email ID or had a corporate ID given by the organisations they worked at. Hotmail changed all that in 1996 and saw a meteoric rise. All one needed was a web browser to access the email box. Hundreds of millions signed up. Yahoo and other portals offered free email. The constraint in all cases was the storage offered. All this changed in 2004 when Gmail launched with 1 GB of storage – 500 times the 2 MB offered by Hotmail and others. Suddenly, the world of email exploded. The low cost of sending email, the ubiquity of email addresses coupled with almost infinite storage saw a massive growth in the use of email by individuals as well as businesses.
Somewhere in the 2000s, the idea of a “mass mailing platform” as a commercial hosted service came into vogue. As email subscriber lists started becoming larger, organisations realised that managing these lists and sending emails required much more expertise than was possible through an in-house setup. Netcore started offering these services to Indian corporates in 2008 or so. Incidentally, we had started A2P (application-to-person) SMS services a couple years earlier.
In those early days, email and SMS cost almost the same. The one difference was that SMS was restricted to 160 characters while emails had no such constraint. Over time, emails became richer in content and moved beyond the text-only format. Since emails got priced based on volumes (number of emails sent), the content in emails started getting longer and longer – infused with graphics and links. It didn’t cost more to send a long email rich with content than a short email with just text.
The price of SMS rose rapidly in India as efforts were made to combat abuse in the form of spam. In 2007, SMS cost 1 paisa. It now costs 13 paise. That’s a compounded annual growth of 35%! During this period, email costs have remained the same – about 1-3 paise per mail.
The rise of email also saw the rise of spam. Inboxes started becoming crowded as the years went by. The email ‘subscription’ relationship started getting abused. Email lists were available for sale and unsolicited emails matched legitimate emails in the inbox. This cat-and-mouse game has continued through the years. Gmail and other inbox providers work hard to ensure clean inboxes even as spammers work to get their emails into the inbox. Email’s huge RoI is what has ensured it has remained the most attractive communications channel for brands in the face of alternatives like WhatsApp, push notifications, Twitter, other social media, and even SMS. In fact, in the past few years, email has seen a renaissance in its popularity and volumes have continued to rise rapidly.