In the beginning there was eWorld. I knew the internet existed, and that I would have access to it when I got to Vanderbilt, but having just bought my Power Mac 6100 my thinking was “get online as quick as humanly possible” and that meant the short window in which Apple had its own private-label version of America Online. It hadn’t been up and running more than a month when I got on, and while it didn’t really have internet access, it did have an email gateway. And so history will record that my first email address wasn’t @vanderbilt.edu, but @eworld.com.
I got my Vanderbilt email within hours of arriving on campus, of course. It took a while for me to figure out how to get my computer dialed in with Apple Remote Access and then configure the necessaries to telnet in from there, and then it took me a while to figure out how to actually use Eudora. But for the first three years of my online life, email was something that I had to find a computer with a command line to access unless I was at home. So telnet became the indispensable thing, from any one of half a dozen places around campus. Being home meant being without access. Which was painful.
The big shift occurred when I got to Washington and realized I needed to be on IMAP rather than POP. Vanderbilt was just engaging in that shift as I left, moving from telnet and POP to an actual IMAP client. Webmail existed – I had a burner Hotmail account almost as soon as I found it existed, and that was potentially transformative – but Vanderbilt didn’t, and neither did my new ISP in DC. In fact, I specifically chose them because they had command line access, and that remained my essential backup solution for years after, Sure, there was Eudora – or Outlook Express, or whatever alternative client I grasped at before Apple Mail in Mac OS X ended Email Client Glee for good – but I felt naked without the ability to just telnet in and use pine.
And it stayed that way. I had POP mail clients on my phones from 2000 on, with varying degrees of success – mostly only useful as an enhanced pager of sorts, or to see “oh shit I have to get back to my computer and look at this for real”. My early smartphone attempts – the Sony Ericsson P800, the Nokia 6620 – didn’t handle it much better. It was only once the iPhone landed in my hands in the summer of 2007 that I realized that email was no longer something you got at over the terminal or through a web browser: email was now something that lived in your hand.
And here’s the remarkable thing: through all this time, email remains the only thing you can set up yourself, on a server in the closet, and make work on any platform or interoperate with anyone else’s email. If you could drop back through time and send something from that @eworld.com account, it could be received and read equally well on Gmail, on the mail client of the iPhone, on Outlook at work, through pine at this very host. Nothing, not even SMS, has been as robust and as interoperable for as long. And that’s why I still persist in keeping up my personal addresses and doing the work to train away the spam, because after almost a quarter-century, I still perk up at that “unread” indicator.