Vinton Cerf on the future of e-mail

Vinton G. Cerf is senior vice president of Internet architecture and technology at WorldCom Inc. He was co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols on which the Internet is based. In 1997, President Bill Clinton presented the National Medal of Technology to Cerf and his partner, Robert E. Kahn, for founding and developing the Internet.

As vice president of MCI Digital Information Services from 1982 to 1986, Cerf led the development of MCI Mail, the first commercial e-mail service to be connected to the Internet. While at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency from 1976 to 1982, Cerf played a key role leading the development of Internet and Internet-related packet-switching and security technologies.

Cerf recently outlined his vision of the future of e-mail to Computerworld's Gary H. Anthes.

Q: What improvements are needed in e-mail?

A:
I think people are beginning to realize that privacy is of real value and that it would be helpful if encrypted e-mail were as easy to generate as the encrypted link we all use on the World Wide Web when filling out e-commerce forms. The crypto technology is there already in the form of public-key cryptography combined with conventional symmetric-key cryptography. PGP [Pretty Good Privacy] implemented a good scheme that can be combined, for example, with Eudora. The problem is that you need to select public keys for each recipient, and in my experience, it is hard to maintain the local table of keys and e-mail addresses that are required. Ideally, it should be easy to find the needed public key and also to automatically apply it when sending mail. Convenience and accuracy are critical, and I don't think anyone has quite managed to get it all to work.

Vinton Cerf, WorldCom Inc.

Vinton Cerf, WorldCom Inc.

A second sort of extension that is needed is the ability to handle smoothly multimedia e-mail. MIME attachments work—although companies like Microsoft have broken this method by altering the format unilaterally, making messages sent with multiple attachments with Outlook not work with Eudora.

Q: Is e-mail a mature technology? How might it evolve?

A:
In its current form for written communication, it is fairly mature. One can now mix HTML into e-mail, and most packages recognize URLs and allow you to hyperlink into Web space from an e-mail text. You get a good deal of freedom in formatting messages using HTML. One can send all kinds of attachments, ranging from audio to video and PowerPoint and images. Anything that can be digitized can essentially be sent. But e-mail clients are not particularly well integrated to accept speech as an alternative to the keyboard, and general speech recognition is still inadequate to handle pure dictation.

We have seen how e-mail can usefully be tied to things like paging; you can send and receive pages via e-mail, and I have found this to be enormously convenient. Same with fax. I am pretty sure we will see more "voiced" mail—even if it is artificially "read" to you by telephone.

Perhaps we will get to the point where we can have our e-mail translated reliably into other languages, and that would make for some interesting communication—and maybe some big flaps with a bad translation. Can you imagine a multilingual flame war?

Q: How might e-mail evolve culturally and sociologically? How might it change the way companies work?

A:
E-mail has already changed the way offices work. People complain regularly about too much e-mail, and there are some folks who have rejected it as too inefficient. It is clear that instant messaging has become an important new tool in the business world. I found it a critical capability during the World Trade Center terrorist emergency, and I now run two such services—an internal one and the AOL Instant Messenger. However, for deferred interaction, e-mail is king. I still use fax for specific authorizations when e-mail isn't accepted. What I would like is a good signed e-mail and encrypted e-mail capability that is essentially as universal as e-mail is today.

If we ever have adequate automatic language translation, we may increase our ability to communicate with friends around the world. English is the most common lingua franca, but there are still billions who do not speak it and may never do so. To the extent that terrorism drives companies toward dispersing their workforces, e-mail and instant messaging, fax and phone will all be tools, along with Internet in general and the World Wide Web, to enable serious telework. Even today, I participate in conference calls on the phone, often accompanied by looking at Web sites or looking at an e-mail attachment as part of the call. My office is anywhere my laptop and my Internet connection are, basically. With 802.11 radio LANs, I can be anywhere in the house or in the office and still be "online." That is very cool.




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