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Welcome to the Red Ferret Journal – tantalisingly tasteful, tacky and taut tech trivia.

Is the email system breaking down under the load? I ask because I’m starting to receive an increasing number of reader letters complaining about issues with their email service. Messages not arriving, being bounced, not being sent from one addresss but OK from another, text stripped out and so on.

The number of complaints has steadily been increasing over the past few months, and it’s not just AOL or Outlook Express users either. Nowadays I’m seeing problems from all kinds of services and configurations. I’m seriously beginning to think that we’re approaching a bit of an email crisis, made worse by the spam deluge no doubt, but real all the same.

Outages at the main mail server hubs don’t help, of course, but maybe there’s more to it than that? I think that it is probably a combination of factors, all adding together to create a potential meltdown situation. Even as long as two years ago people started noticing that the anti-spam measures put into place by the ISPs were themselves creating problems. Joi reported in Aug 2003 that ‘email is officially broken‘ when it was reported that 17% of legitimate emails were being over zealously blocked, and I suspect that what we’re seeing now is the gradually increase in problems arising from those early signs. Joi is officially an early adopter, and so it makes sense that it would take a while for the plague to arrive in force.

Think on this. When was the last time that you had a problem with an email arriving or leaving your desk? I get them almost every fortnight now, stuff that doesn’t arrive or is bounced or whatever. In small proportions these incidents are not really a problem, but the real damage occurs of course, kiddies, when we start to lose trust in the medium. The medium is the message and if the message don’t arrive, the medium dies. Or something.

If 82% of email traffic is spam, and the other 18% comes from ISPs bouncing, stripping, testing and generally messing with the whole shooting match, that doesn’t leave a lot of space for the actual messages to make their way round the world. Eventually we’ll all end up looking at either empty inboxes or ones stuffed with everything except our messages. Won’t that be fun?

Anyway it may all work out fine in the end after all. Better people than I have been pronouncing the end of email for years now, so I won’t labour the point except to ask three questions:

1) Are things going to get better or worse?
2) What percentage of lost or broken messages will it take for all of us to view the email system as inherently useless and unworkable?
3) What on earth would we, or could we use instead?


  • I notice from time to time there’s problems on the mailserver with traffic going to and from the UK/US.

  • Possibly a feature of the sheer volume of traffic crossing the Atlantic, S-D? It’s hard to pin down individual cases as far as I can see. They seem quite random in geography, type and severity. All I suggest is that the incidents of email fall-out are increasing in number.

  • A problem I got with my ADSL line at work appeared after 16-apr-05. I could recieve but not send email. After spending 3 days with tech support we found out that the latest windows update was the culprit.
    Both windows 2k and XP were affected. I did a system restore in XP and all is fine.

  • Ouch, Markos. That’s one thing that nobody has really covered in depth. Just how much of an impact are software and operating system updates having on the email system? All sorts of stuff is updated constantly, on servers, clients, routers etc. Someone should investigate and see what percentage of this stuff breaks the system. We might be quite surprised.

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