Category Archives: Internet

Required Reading? Oh yes.

To live in the modern world, you need to understand social networks. That’s not the same as using them; you can understand them without using or wanting to use them, and you can quite happily use them without actually understanding how they work at all. In fact, I would suggest, most people do, and that ignorance is amongst the bigger problems facing the world today.

Fortunately, we have a good antidote to it, in Charles Arthur’s latest book “Social Warming: The dangerous and polarising effects of social media”. I think it is superb.

Arthur is a highly-respected writer and journalist of long standing, but it’s still quite an achievement to produce a book which is nicely written and enjoyable to read, yet simultaneously extremely serious and important.

The title draws an analogy with global warming: there’s no one single massive event that causes climate change: it’s the result of millions of small actions and interactions taking place all over the planet for an extended period. And the mechanisms which drive social networks, which make them tick, also seem mostly harmless at the level of individual interactions, but they too accumulate to have enormous impact. We remain in ignorance of them at our peril… until perhaps one day we’ll find things have gone too far.

The dramatic cover might lead you to think this is going to be a shocker: a breathtaking exposé of corporate evils, which you can only escape by banning Facebook from your life forever. In fact, however, it is a rational explanation of the algorithms social networks have found to be effective in driving ever-greater engagement of the audience (and hence ever-greater revenues for their shareholders). And it’s a journey through numerous examples of the impact these mechanisms have actually had in key situations in different parts of the world.

The phrase “required reading” is a somewhat clichéd one, and I don’t think I’ve ever used it before, but I think it may be appropriate here. Perhaps, though, I should moderate it a bit. This book should be considered required reading if you post to social networks, read social networks, have any close friends or family who use social networks, read papers or watch media where the journalists get information from social networks, meet people whose approach to global pandemics depends on what they read on social networks, live in a country where voting is heavily influenced by social networks, or have kids growing up in a world dominated by social networks.

The rest of you don’t need to read it.


‘Social Warming’ can be purchased from Amazon and many other sources, with hardback, Kindle and audiobook versions available now, and paperback to follow in the spring.

University of Cambridge abandons open standards for proprietary ones, and starts to pay the price

A few years ago, the ‘University Information Services’ (UIS) team at Cambridge made the decision that the University would no longer run its own email service — something it had done since email began — and instead was going to outsource it to a commercial entity.

This in itself, I think, was probably a mistake, because email is enormously important, not just as a communication method, but as an archive. Many people make this mistake. “We use Slack for our internal chat, we use Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp and Zoom for our external communications. We hear some old people still use email, but why is that any different?”

Email, though, for most people, is not just an instant-messaging system. It’s a store, a journal, a database, a record, of decisions made, invoices received, relationships formed, ideas generated, news exchanged, and so on. I have most of my email for the last thirty years or so, and find it incredibly valuable. Last year, I wrote a post about why I think it’s one of our most successful and important data archive formats, and its success for so long, when compared with almost anything else, has depended substantially on open standards and Open Source software.

Running an email server is easy. Doing it well, however, is not, and requires expertise and dedicated staff. In the past, I have run my own personal server, and we also did this in one of my startup companies. (In both cases these were based on the excellent, widely-used and highly-regarded Exim software which was, ironically, developed here at Cambridge in that same UIS department!) But these days there are lots of good hosting services, and it doesn’t normally make sense for most organisations to run their own.

The University of Cambridge is not, however, a small organisation, and surely it should really be willing to employ the skilled staff and provide the resources to run its own email system, in the same way that it runs its own libraries. (Maybe they’ll be next?)

However, out-sourcing is the name of the game these days, and it’s not that that is causing me, and several of my colleagues, concerns.

Exchanging open for closed

No, it’s the fact that that the University decided to opt for Microsoft Exchange Online. A couple of days ago, most staff who had not yet transitioned were moved from our own servers to Microsoft’s, and the forced migration will be complete by the end of next week, and the old servers switched off at the end of the year. For most people, in the short term, this will just be a minor inconvenience. So why does this worry me? Because I take a longer view.

Since email was invented, all of the email of many tens of thousands of University staff and students has been stored in formats defined by open standards, on machines that we control, generally by open email software running on open operating systems which were storing it on open filesystems… and so on. We had full control, and we always knew we could manipulate, improve, archive, extract and back up any part of this system which stores such a valuable archive of data for the entire community.

This week, however, saw the transition of that entire archive to a system running proprietary software, stored in proprietary formats on proprietary operating systems and filing systems, on servers that we no longer control. And the most important question, of course, when putting any important data into any new system is “How easily can I get it out again, in a usable format for the future, if I change my mind?”

Now, normally, one of the many wonderful things about an IMAP-based email archive is that this is trivial: you can decide to move it from one hosting service to another, or just shift it to your own machine, simply by dragging and dropping it using the email program of your choice. I have done this many times over the decades, as I’ve moved between jobs, email providers, academic institutions, and also as my email-reading devices have switched between different operating systems and different email apps.

Exchange, however, has always had problems supporting IMAP access to email reliably. Experts disagree on how serious those problems currently are, but the fact that the debate continues is worrying. It’s a lower priority for Microsoft, because they’d rather you used their own protocols and their own software.

The slippery slope

The UIS’s own pages telling Mac users how to connect to the new email service, for example, start with this dire warning:

Warnings about why Outlook is the only safe desktop client to use with Exchange

Note that this is referring to Apple Mail, one of the most-used email clients in the world, and there’s a similar warning for those accessing their email and calendars from iOS devices.

What hope is there for those of us who prefer less-common email clients, such as my long-term favourite, Mailmate? Or who use less-mainstream operating systems? Or who have older hardware that won’t run the latest software?

This rings alarm bells for those of us who remember Microsoft’s (thankfully failed) attempts in the past to control another open system — the Web — by getting people to run Microsoft software both on the desktop and the server. When you control both ends of a system, you can freely modify the protocols used to communicate between them until it becomes very hard for users to adopt any other system. Microsoft used predatory and sometimes illegal business practices in the past to try and kill off Netscape and other desktop competition in pursuit of this goal, but the overall strategy failed, partly because their own server-side software was so inferior to the Open Source offerings that the techies responsible for most web servers refused to depend upon it.

I hope we are not seeing a repeat here — and to be frank, I doubt it — but I do wonder whether this shift to Exchange will prove to be a one-way-only transition. Suppose Microsoft were to say, in a few years’ time, that only a very small proportion of Exchange users now depended on IMAP, and they would be switching it off shortly. What options would the University have?

And what choice would users then have about the software they ran on their desktop to access this valuable archive?

Could we rely on getting thousands of email archives out and into a usable form elsewhere? What about any enhanced metadata? Attachments? Calendars? Contacts? There are open standards for all these things, but what incentives would Microsoft have to ease that transition, if it were even viable?

No, I fear that this contract, once made, has been made for ever.

And some of the implications are starting to be felt elsewhere. It recently came to light, for example, that the contract with Microsoft covered the staff and students of the University, but we have traditionally continued to provide email cam.ac.uk addresses to retired academics, emeritus professors, others helping with the activities of the University. “Ah”, said Microsoft — after the deal was signed, as I understand it, but perhaps before our chaps had cottoned on to all the implications — “You do realise that they’re not included in this deal?”.

This has made a lot of people very upset, because they had been given to understand that the email address that they’d always had, often the only one they’d ever had, that had been published at the top of their academic papers for decades, and had been used, for example, to set up all of their other online accounts, would remain a valid way of contacting them indefinitely. Not any more. This, of course, is standard practice in the business world: you leave a company and your email address is gone. The company closes, or is bought, and your email address is gone. But ancient universities haven’t always been run on those purely corporate lines or with those same expectations of transience.

Where does this leave us?

Essentially, therefore, there has been only one choice for those of us who wish to keep our email in standard formats that we know will be accessible in the long term. Reliable archiving is not a service we can now expect our eight-century-old University to provide, so we take all incoming email to our University addresses, and forward it to our own accounts held elsewhere.

Many of my colleagues in the Computer Science department are now doing this. We have to hope that this will continue to be allowed, both by the University and, of course, by Microsoft. We can’t ignore the Microsoft servers completely, because they will probably soon also be the only way to send email that will be recognised by the outside world as coming from a valid cam.ac.uk address. And being able to receive email under such an alias can be important for accessing academic journals, university service etc.

But some friends have decided that a better option is to start using their own personal email addresses on academic projects, papers, websites etc. to ensure that they have control in the future. (If you’re doing this, make sure you use your own DNS domain or a long-term reliable forwarding service, so you aren’t indefinitely tied to your current ISP or your ancient Hotmail account for your future professional communications!)

me.com

And perhaps some of this is inevitable. I used to rely on my employer to provide me with a telephone and a telephone number, for example, but the one sitting on my University desk for the last several years has almost never been used.

For many of us, it’s important that we control our own ‘brand’. Our own phone number, our own website, our own LinkedIn pages are more important to us than how we appear on any particular employer’s website, and as a result we need to pay for those out of our own pockets. Email should perhaps be the same, and wise academics should probably ensure that they control their own destiny and don’t use their current university email address on their publications.

But it all gradually erodes the sense of belonging to an ancient institution with which you might have a lifelong relationship. And that isn’t good for the institution either, especially when it comes to fund-raising. Ask any development office.

How to fix social media

Nicholas Carr, writing in The New Atlantis, has a splendid overview of how past regulation of technologies has distinguished between personal communications, which should be private, and broadcast communications, which should be regulated because, as Hoover put it, “The ether is a public medium, and its use must be for public benefit.”

He talks about how regulation of radio was accelerated because of the interference of amateur broadcasters in the rescue efforts when the Titanic went down, and follows the trajectory from there.

With the even more expansive Communications Act of 1934, Congress replaced the FRC with a more permanent body, the Federal Communications Commission, and widened its purview to include the personal communication systems of telephony and telegraphy, and eventually the new broadcast medium of television. By combining the mandate that telephone and telegraph providers operate as common carriers with the mandate that broadcasters act in the public interest, the legislation formalized the two-pronged philosophy that would govern electronic communications for the rest of the century.

The public interest, as we all know, is not easy to define. But that is part of its strength, Carr argues.

As the fraught history of the fairness doctrine makes clear, the public interest standard is not a magic bullet. Its amorphousness means that its interpretation will always be messy, combative, and provisional — as political processes tend to be in a democracy. Some legal scholars and pundits, particularly those with a libertarian tilt, have argued that the standard’s imprecision gives government regulators too much leeway. The standard, writes one typical critic, is “vague to the point of vacuousness, providing neither guidance nor constraint.” But that’s a misinterpretation. The public interest standard is more than just a legal principle. It is an ethical principle. It assures the people’s right to have a say in the workings of the institutions and systems that shape their lives — a right fundamental to a true democracy and a just society. The vagueness of the standard is necessary for a simple reason: public opinion changes as circumstances change.

Exactly how this distinction might be applied to social networks is not clear, he admits.

On a social network like Facebook, conversations feel like broadcasts, and broadcasts feel like conversations.

In addition, some posts which were intended for a small audience go viral and become a large-scale broadcast, whether or not that was the author’s intention. But he makes the point that the networks themselves are very aware of all the statistics about the reach of each individual post, and that this might form the basis of some form of regulatory distinctions.

And…

It’s worth remembering that Congress’s decision to license radio operators after the Titanic disaster was about more than just allocating scarce spectrum. It was about bringing those who speak to the masses out of the shadows and into the daylight of the public square. It was about making broadcasters, whether individuals, businesses, or other organizations, visible and accountable.

A very nice piece and worth reading in full. Thanks to Charles Arthur for the link.

Audio sometimes preferred!

I had an interesting start to the day. Regular readers of this blog will probably have heard quite enough about webcams and coffee pots, but that’s apparently not true for everybody in the world…

Thirty years ago today, Sir Tim turned on his first public webserver, which means that this is one of the days that people have chosen to label as the 30th anniversary of the Web. As it happens, we’re also not too far from the 30th anniversary of the day when we turned on the Trojan Room coffee pot camera, which would be connected to the web a couple of years later and so become the first webcam.

Anyway, I sometimes get wheeled out as a suitable relic to display from this era, and I had an email yesterday from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire asking if I was willing to be on the Louise Hulland show first thing this morning. I said yes, and they were going to contact me with further details… but I heard nothing more, so presumed it wasn’t going ahead. Until, that is, I emerged from my shower this morning, draped in my dressing gown but dripping slightly, to hear my phone ringing… and answered it only to be dropped into a live interview. However much I like networked video, there are times when audio really is the best medium! Anyway, it’s here, for the record.

Perhaps better is an interview that was actually recorded quite some time ago by Jim Boulton for the Centre for Computing History, but which they first published today as part of the local Web@30 event. In it, I am (a) slightly more compos mentis, since it was recorded later in the day and I had consumed more coffee, and (b) rather better attired.

MeetingBuster and the Christmas Call Diary

There was a period of a few years when I played quite extensively with VOIP, which for the uninitiated, stands for Voice-Over-Internet-Protocols, sometimes called ‘IP Telephony’. This isn’t about Zoom and Skype and FaceTime, but about traditional phone calls: the things your parents used to make (and maybe still do), often using devices attached to the wall with wires!

It all seems very obvious now, but there was a point between about 20 and 10 years ago when the typical office phone changed from being an audio device plugged into a landline-style connection with analogue voltages talking to a phone exchange, to being something digital that plugged into the ethernet and had an IP address. Telephone calls, hitherto controlled by large national monopolies with expensive proprietary equipment and hideously complex signalling protocols, started to become something ordinary users could manage with their own software, even Open Source software.

Companies that had previously paid vast sums of money to buy or lease a PBX (the ‘Private Branch Exchange’ that gave you internal phone numbers and routed calls to and from external numbers), could now just install software on a cheap PC and route calls to phone handsets over the local network. If you also routed calls over the wider internet, limitations of most broadband connections meant that the quality and reliability left something to be desired, but, as one perceptive observer commented at the time, “The great thing about mobile networks is that they have lowered people’s expectations of telephony to the point where VOIP is a viable solution.”

Phone Phun

And what you could do in an office, you could also do at home, just for fun. I loved this stuff, because in my youth telephony had embodied the quintessence of big faceless corporations: you paid them, they told you what you could and couldn’t do with the socket in your wall, you lived with the one phone number they decided to give you, and could only plug in the equipment that they approved. Any variations on this theme rapidly became very expensive.

With VOIP, however, you could now get multiple phone numbers in your own house and configure how they were handled yourself. I had one number that was registered in Seattle (because I was doing lots of work there), but it rang a phone in my home office in Cambridge — the same one that also had one Cambridge number and one London one — with the calls routed halfway around the world over the internet, basically for free. All of a sudden, you could do things that the Post Office, BT, AT&T, or whoever, would never have let you do in the past. It was fun!

Part of my interest came from the clear parallels between how phone calls were handled in this new world, and the way HTTP requests were handled on the web. I first got involved in telephony with the AT&T Broadband Phone project back in 1999, when my friends and I had to write our own telephony stack based on the new SIP protocol, and build our own custom hardware to connect our SIP network to real-world phone lines.

But, as with the early days of the web, Open Source servers soon emerged so you didn’t have to write your own! The Asterisk and, a little later, FreeSwitch packages were very much analogous to Apache and Nginx in the web world. Calls came in, and you decided what to do with them using a set of configuration rules similar to those that might determine what page or image to return for a particular URL. Voice prompts and keypad button presses were a bit like forms and submit buttons on web pages… and so on.

Anyway, there were a couple of quick hacks that I put together at the time which turned out to be rather useful, so if you’re still with me after the history lesson above, I’ll describe them.

The Christmas Call Diary

We were a young startup company, with about half-a-dozen employees, operating primarily out of a garden shed in Cambridge. But we had sold products to real customers who expected a decent level of support. As Christmas approached, we realised that the office was going to be empty for about a fortnight, and started to wonder what would happen if anybody had technical support issues and needed urgent help.

So I set up a shared Google calendar, and asked everyone to volunteer to be available for particular periods of time over the holiday, just in case any customers called; a possibility that was, we hoped, pretty unlikely, but it would improve our reputation no end if somebody did answer. All we had to do was put entries in the calendar that contained our mobile or home number during times when we didn’t mind being disturbed. People valiantly signed up.

We were running a VOIP exchange on an old Dell PC, and I wrote a script to handle incoming calls, which worked like this:

  • When a call comes in, ring all the phones in the office for a short while.
  • If nobody picks up, then look at the special Google Calendar to see if there’s a current entry, and if its contents look like a phone number. If so, then divert the call to that number.
  • If it isn’t answered after a short while, send the caller to our voicemail system, and email the resulting message to all of us.

In the end, I don’t think anybody did call, but the script worked as intended, and allowed us to have a more worry-free Christmas break, which was perhaps its most important achievement!

MeetingBuster

Back in 2006, I registered the domain MeetingBuster.com, and thanks to the wonderful Internet Archive, I can see once again what the front page looked like, which neatly explains its purpose (click if you need a larger image):

A later update allowed you to call MeetingBuster and press a number key within 10 seconds, and your callback would then happen that many tens of minutes later, so pressing ‘3’ just before going into a meeting would give you an option to escape from it after half an hour. (Remember this was all well before the iPhone was released, so all such interactions had to be based on DTMF tones.)

Anyway, Meetingbuster was just for fun, and there are probably better ways to escape from today’s virtual meetings. But if/when we go back to face-to-face meetings again, and you need an excuse to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I really ought to answer that; do you mind?”, then let me know and perhaps I can revive it!

Awardify revisited

Ten years ago, as a joke, I created a website called ‘Awardify’. The front page explained its purpose:

Awardify is the internet’s premier award-granting service!

  • Have you ever looked at marketing materials for a product or service and seen them described as ‘award-winning’?
  • Have you ever wondered which award they won, and how recently, and whether it has any value at all?
  • Of course not! You probably thought, “Wow! I wish my company/product/service was award-winning too!”

Well, now you need look no further. Awardify’s simple and convenient service can grant you the award of your choice, so that you too can use that catchy and effective phrase on your own marketing materials, and be the envy of your competitors!

Sure enough, you could fill in your details and it would generate a nice printable award for you. You could pick from a selection of pre-defined titles — “The International Kitchen Excellence Award” was one example, I think — or you could choose your own, and you could then decide who should award it to you from a list of impressive-sounding organisations, all of which were trading names of Awardify.com (which didn’t actually exist as legal entity).

After a few years, I decided this spoof had run its course and it wasn’t worth paying for the awardify.com domain any longer, or keeping the underlying software updated with security patches, so I let it go. You can see a snapshot of the Awardify front page on the Internet Archive, but otherwise it was consigned to the big wastebin of internet history, the domain was bought by somebody else, and there the story would have ended… until…

Well, blow me down, if somebody hasn’t revived the idea!

Yes, I discovered today that you can now go to Awardify Now and get yourself an award, and what’s more, they’re actually charging money for them! Which means they might hang around a bit longer than my site did. But they can’t be serious, surely?

So the question now arises, who is the most foolish? The person taken in by fake awards? The person who pays a website to generate fake awards? Or the person who has an idea for a fake-award-generating-business and completely fails to capitalise on it?

Introducing the Windowizer

Favourite quote of the day

We have never experienced a disease that hit the whole planet at this scale, this fast, all at the same time. Well, except for Facebook.

Paolo Valdemarin, on the (splendid) State of the Net podcast.

Take Control of your Video Calls!

Do you wish you could incorporate videos, music, or views from multiple simultaneous cameras in your video calls & webinars?

In this video I take a look at one way in which Mac users can blend multiple media sources, sound and video, and send them out through calls on Zoom, Teams, Webex and similar apps.

Office Meeting 2.0.1

In my post yesterday, I forgot to mention the final twist to my open-air Teams meeting, which made it even more surreal.

Just after pressing the ‘Leave meeting’ button on the app, I walked through our village churchyard and fell into conversation with a gravedigger. No, really. He was filling in a hole, and, leaning on his spade, told me that the heavy clay around here was nothing compared that that around Lavenham. It was a strangely Shakespearian encounter; I half-expected him to bend down, pick up a skull and ask if I recognised it.

After a brief but cheery discussion, I bade him good day and departed, thinking that I should probably have tossed him half a crown for good luck, or something.

Definitely not my typical office meeting, I thought to myself, and Tilly and I walked home debating the whims of Lady Fortune in iambic pentameter.

The WhatsApp Exodus

Apparently, lots of people are leaving WhatsApp, or at least looking for alternatives. (So say articles like this and this, at least.) I’ve only rarely used it, since most of my close friends and family are on iMessage and both my work-related groups use Zulip. It’s only the occasional extended-family discussion that ends up on WhatsApp.

But if you’ve missed the story, this is because they changed their Terms of Service recently, and lots of people are shocked to discover that it now says they will share your details — location, phone number, etc — with the rest of the Facebook group.

I actually read, or at least skimmed, the Terms when they came out, and didn’t blink an eye, because I’ve always assumed that’s what they did anyway! I deleted my Facebook account many years ago, but I was aware that they still knew a lot about me because I do still use WhatsApp and Instagram (though only about once a month). Still, that will give them things like my name, phone number and location (from my photos if not from the apps).

In the early days, by the way, WhatsApp traded, as BlackBerry had done before, on the fact that it was secure messaging — encrypted end-to-end at least for one-on-one conversations. My understanding from those who follow these things more closely is that the security services tolerate this because the accounts are so closely tied to phone numbers, which means that, though they can only see metadata, they can get lots of it and related information because of older laws allowing phone-tracing etc. But there may be some people out there who thought that the use of WhatsApp was giving them a decent level of security, in which case this would perhaps be more of a shock.

Anyway, I too now have a Signal account, alongside Telegram, Skype, Messages… and all the others on all my devices. Actually, that was one of the reasons I disliked WhatsApp: the pain of using it on my iPad, desktop and laptop. And who wants to type things on a phone keypad when they have an alternative? You could run clients on those other devices, but (presumably because of the regulatory issues above) they had to be tied to the account running on your phone, and that connection seemed a bit fragile and had to be oft-renewed.

Signal, which I installed last night, works on a similar principle; it’ll be interesting to see whether it does it better! But it looks OK on my iPad; time to go and try it on my Macs… In the meantime, you can find me on Signal, if you know my phone number (like the FBI, GCHQ and Mark Zuckerberg do). If not, they can tell you where to find me.

Looking backwards at the future

Searching recently for emails from one of my academic colleagues, I came across one or two that appeared to have the address written backwards. He works in the Computer Lab at Cambridge, and the email was from user@uk.ac.cam.cl. What was going on?

Well, the simple answer was that my mail archives stretch back quite a long way. I have emails I received from my friend Peter just last week, but I also have some from him that arrived in the early 1990s, and this was just about the time that the UK’s academic networks were switching from the Name Resolution Scheme (NRS) they had used up to that point, over to the Domain Name System (DNS) which was becoming the standard in other parts of the world. NRS addresses started at the more general, and worked down to the more specific. Hence uk.ac.cam.cl.

Actually, email addresses in general tended to look like USER@UK.AC.CAM.CL because on mainframes EVERYTHING TENDED TO BE IN CAPITALS. But Peter was fortunate enough to be an early user of Xerox and Unix-based systems, which were more lower-casey; more cuddly California, less corporate IBM. By the start of the 90s, I too had an email address that looked like quentin.stafford-fraser@uk.ac.cam.cl.

Anyway, the fact that I still have emails from 30 years ago made me reflect, once again, on how extraordinarily successful email has been, not just as a communication medium, but as a storage format.

When I think back on other electronic documents of the time, few, if any could be read now. The companies behind my early ‘desktop publishing’ programs are no longer in existence. Microsoft Word long ago lost the the ability to open documents it had created in the past. And I imagine my documents from WordStar, WordPerfect, Microsoft Works and others would be just as challenging, if I could even find them.

But my email messages I can find. And I can read them. This is despite the fact that they have been through dozens of different email systems, created by a wide range of apps on multiple operating systems, stored on servers around the world and hard disks in my various homes and offices, and accessed through a range of different protocols (IMAP, for most of that period). Not only is my email readable, but it’s easily searchable from multiple locations using a choice of apps on any of my devices. It’s tagged with helpful metadata about authorship, time of creation and receipt, etc. I can choose to store it myself or pay others to do so. And so on. Almost no other digital storage system has proved as powerful and flexible as IMAP-accessed email.

Much of this comes, of course, from the fact that email is governed by open standards, accessed through open protocols, and often stored in non-proprietary formats. Because it is fundamentally about inter-operation, email providers have had no choice. It bugs me that I don’t have my pre-1991 emails, but that was probably because of an inadvertent slip on my part, or a hard disk crash, or something, rather than because of a fundamental limitation of the technology. If I do ever find them on some backup, I’m confident I’ll be able to include them in my archive.

This explains why, like some of my colleagues, I’ve resisted my University’s recent attempts to migrate our email accounts from our existing Open-Source-based system to Microsoft Exchange Online. It’s not because I dislike Exchange per se; after a rocky first decade or two it seems to be settling down quite nicely. But I don’t want to use a Microsoft email reader on all my devices — my own are much better, thank you — and Exchange has repeatedly shown an inability to support IMAP reliably. The messages are also not stored anywhere on a server where I could extract them by any other means in a standard format when I want to move them elsewhere. And I will want to move them elsewhere at some point; history shows me that. Fortunately, I have that power. If my email shows any danger of being locked into proprietary formats, I can simply arrange for it to be forwarded to my own servers and handle it however I like there; that’s what I’ll do if the University turns off the old system completely. And since almost everything does support IMAP, I can move emails around the world to my preferred location with a simple drag and drop.

One of my colleagues said in a recent meeting that his children don’t know what the fuss is about. Email is just something they glance at once a week to see if they’ve had any. As long as it works, they don’t mind where it comes from. Well, they may be right; perhaps it will be less important in future. But this may also be a natural tendency of the young just to focus on the immediate here and now, and the immediate future.

To me, and occasionally to other people, my email archive has turned out to be important. Something I wrote 20 years ago becomes relevant to a patent case now and earns me money because I can look back at the records. Interviewers ask me about the technologies used in a particular project and I can search back to find the answers. I forget the name of a good B&B or hotel in a particular city; email allows me to find it again. I generally had no idea, at the time, that these communications might prove to be important. But they’re a key part of the history of my life.

So here’s my question: If the things you’re doing today turn out to be important a few decades from now, what sort of digital archive would they need to be in for you to find and make use of them then? Best to start using that today, before it’s too late.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser