Remembering MCI Mail

MCI did something no other company had done before when it connected its e-mail to the Internet

The dangers of malware, phishing and spam never occurred to anyone at MCI in 1989. When the telecommunications giant decided to link its e-mail system, MCI Mail, to the National Science Foundation’s network, NSFNet, in July that year, the event was a milestone reported in Federal Computer Week.

“We never thought that something could happen like spam,” said Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google and one of the architects of MCI Mail. “I don’t want to call it naiveté, but in the community in which this was developed there was a high degree of trust.”

Cerf, whom FCW interviewed for the 1989 article, recently described the complicated features of MCI Mail. Mailing addresses had to be interoperable with those of other Internet e-mail systems at the time, which included the Defense Department’s ARPAnet and Milnet e-mail.

MCI attempted to solve the interoperability problem by using multiple-line addresses. The results were e-mail addresses that resembled those that the U.S. Postal Service uses to deliver mail. The MCI team worked for days trying to make its addressing scheme work with other e-mail clients, telex messaging systems and postal mail.

Nothing about developing MCI Mail was easy, said David Crocker, former senior manager of e-mail development at MCI who became development director after Cerf left MCI. Crocker is now a principal at Brandenburg InternetWorking, a consulting company. He recalled spending an entire day thinking about how to make multiple-line e-mail addresses work.

When he first arrived at MCI in January 1983, Crocker was the sixth employee to join the e-mail team. He said Cerf dumped a business plan in his lap that had only the parameters of the project. MCI gave the team members six months to develop an e-mail system. The developers decided the e-mail user interface would be the software’s most important feature. Their working motto was “keep it simple.”

The company stopped supporting MCI Mail in 1994, but several of its features might help solve some of the e-mail virus and spam problems that frustrate organizations today, Cerf said. One feature was a per-message transaction charge. Cerf said such a business model would be impossible to enforce today because anyone can set up a free e-mail server. But having unique log-ins and strong authentication would help reduce the amount of anonymous e-mail that spews spam every day, he said.

Instead of abruptly ending MCI Mail in 1994, MCI allowed it to coast unfunded until it ground to a halt, which happened about a decade later.

“It lasted for a lot longer than I expected,” Cerf said. “I was surprised about the level of loyalty that people had.”

When asked about the historical importance of MCI Mail, Crocker answered modestly. Its influence amounted to almost zero, he said. But he contradicted that notion in describing its effect on a technical community of e-mail developers that still exists. “Anybody who touched that system in some way, it affected our view in ways that were…quite deep.”
3 MCI Mail features that failed to catch onMCI’s now-defunct MCI Mail had some features that might seem impractical today, but its original developers thought they could make Internet e-mail more secure than it is today. Here are three of those features.

1. A centralized directory of e-mail addresses from which anyone could access address information.

Having real names in Internet e-mail addresses seems like a bad idea now that spam floods e-mail inboxes every day. But Vint Cerf, one of the original developers of MCI Mail, said secure e-mail identification and authentication could limit the number of fake e-mail addresses that spammers use.

2. Interoperability with other e-mail clients and forms of communication.

A lack of e-mail interoperability quickly ended with the widespread adoption of the user@domain name e-mail address format.

3. A system for sending e-mail to postal mailing addresses.

Cerf said he remains hopeful that it will be feasible for postal employees to print e-mail messages at local post offices and have carriers deliver them to people’s front doors or curbside mailboxes.

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