Before the internet entered our everyday lives.. Bob Hoskins convinced us to keep on talking

The one thing about this pandemic and being in isolation is that we’ve never been more reliant on technology to keep in touch with each other.

Ever since I was little and got my hands on my first computer, a ZX81 that my dad borrowed from a neighbour, and having got my mind and grubby little mitts around the Telex system at my dad’s work (he’d let me type them up and send them – often many would go to clients in Japan), I was enamoured with computer networks and communication systems.

When the internet became prominent in the 90s, I started to get heavily involved with web design, I.T. consultation (writing a recommendation for a wireless network system for a national African insurance company – it was actually cheaper than a wired system, believe it or not), and systems administration work. I effectively dropped out of university to work with the internet, helping set-up and run a Norwich-based ISP. All dial-up – ADSL would be a good few years away back then.

Back in those days, social media was barely a thing. Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) were transitioning from dial-up only systems to the internet – these were the forerunners to internet forums – communities usually formed around a particular theme (such as computing, films, etc.). Usenet was a big thing – a global group of text-based forums where people could subscribe to, create posts, read posts and reply to them. You had to access them via a dedicated program on your computer as they were not generally web-based back then. Arguments about certain topics or people (aka flame wars) were a problem, but they were much less severe than they are now. In fact, everything back then was practically better – the fewer the people online, the less of a problem it was. Email spam was rare, DoS attacks were also pretty rare too. People generally, for the most part, behaved themselves.

Mobile phones were still pretty basic in the 90s – essentially limited to making phone calls, sending very limited text messages and playing ludicrously simple games. Cell coverage was pretty limited too, making it very difficult to get hold of people if they weren’t close enough to one of the few mobile phone masts.

Now?

We’re pretty much a 24/7 day, always on-call, always available society. We have more social networks than family members, mobile phones that are as powerful as our own desktop/laptop computers, superfast home broadband (well, there is room for improvement there), Wi-Fi is practically everywhere. It is fair to say that as a society, we are the most connected we have ever been.

And I’m finding it a bit of a struggle. My attempts to rejoin Twitter and start from scratch earlier this year were a noble one – just stick myself into read mode and post occasionally. Keep it light. Keep it non-controversial. I’d then find I miss particular people, then start adding them back into my feed. And before long it was practically my old account, just with fewer people I’m following, and with fewer followers. And it is still a trigger: so many political posts, so much anger about big and small things. A great deal matters, and yet so little does.

So I’m back off Twitter again. Hopefully for good. I need to keep my sanity about me.

Facebook has also been a bit of pain over the past few years too, but never at the kind of scale Twitter can get to. I’ve never really used it much – even back in the heyday when everybody shared everything with each other. But I will admit that over the past year it’s allowed me to keep in touch with family that bit better – my cousins, my sister, my aunts and uncle, old friends and colleagues – we’re all on Facebook. Even if Facebook is a data mining succubus, it has a genuine usefulness to it. Though with work and being on-call, it has proven difficult to switch off and sometimes I switch off in the wrong direction (e.g. friends and family rather than work) – and for that I am truly sorry. But the past few days on Facebook though have been fantastic, though – an old friend from school has found old cassette tapes that we used to produce for each other – a kind of radio show mixed with music and comedy – and uploaded them for me to listen. It brought back very fond memories, and I have to say that the quality of the comedy is on par with some of the stuff some so-called comedians pump out these days.

As I’ve said – the possibilities of the internet and communication back in the 90’s were so exciting and new. And here in 2020 it just makes me want to become a digital hermit at times, and especially within this pandemic which has promoted all this technology to become our primary method with talking to, and staying in touch with, our friends, family and work colleagues. Working in I.T. has paid off dividends over the years, but at the same time it does kind of extract a kind of toll.

In any event, I’m still here. Blogging, at the very least. I am a proud blogger even if I’m not particularly good at it. I was proud when Neil Gaiman(*) who introduced me to his friends as a blogger at a screening. It gives me a sense of value despite maybe not having such a good grasp on the English language or grammar as I’d like or should do (I blame the educmacation system, D’OH). Nor the patience for pease pudding, I mean proof reading.

Something that I watched recently on Apple TV+ struck home with me: Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet – Quarantine Special. While it is incredibly funny (this is the show that’s keeping me as an AppleTV+ subscriber), there was one moment when Poppy, who is the chief engineer at the game development company that features in the show, breaks down and cries – admitting to her boss Ian that she’s not okay. She’s single, she lives by herself and she isn’t coping very well in isolation. I had enormous empathy for her at that moment (and maybe a tear or three was shed). But as I have always been a bit of a loner, even while I was married, I tend to cope with things a bit better in these circumstances. Certainly I haven’t gotten to that point yet.


(*) (who made the news recently after travelling 12,000 miles from New Zealand to his own home in Skye – I don’t blame him at all for this given the circumstances and he did explain that he used every conceivable precaution going, but again, given the internet, the reaction was not at all pleasant and much Twitter blocking occurred – hence why I’ve quit, Twitter is far too toxic, and far too easy to enrage people and become enraged yourself.)

Let me start off by saying that I’ve been working with electronic communications since I was about 8 or 9 years old. I’m now 43, nearly 44. I started off being allowed to “play” (read: carefully dictate messages) with a major international re-insurance broker’s telex system whenever my dad took me to work with him. I found it absolutely fascinating. And the beautiful mechanical DEC keyboards were a joy to type on. Much later on I’d spend a few summers on work experience at the same company, telexing and working with spreadsheets and FileMaker Pro databases on expensive early Macintosh kit.

At secondary school I wrote an internal email system in BASIC which made use of the local school’s Windows network. It was super simple and merely demonstrated how a typical email system would work. But work it did. I did all this for my Computer Studies GCSE.

The combination of work experience and the GCSE project very much defined my career because for the past 24 years I’ve been a systems administrator. My first ever gig after leaving university was setting up a local Norwich ISP. This included providing email services for both dial-up (remember that?) and web hosting customers. Things back then where much simpler than they are now. We had very few spammers, phishing was a mere twinkle in scammers eyes, and anti-virus was something that only naughty people caught. Generally any filtering was performed client-side. We didn’t have much in the way of webmail – everything was POP3. IMAP was considered a novelty.

But even then, it took some effort to manage and maintain an email system. As years went on, Sendmail (for it was the de facto at the time) filtering started and both commercial and free anti-virus scanning became essential. Then SpamAssassin integration. When I was working for The Moving Picture Company (MPC) in London, I looked after the main mail servers. I split off anti-spam filtering (powered by SpamAssassin) onto its own server (which cost us nothing – I used an old render farm machine – whereas when we were looking at Barracuda’s anti-spam system at the time (circa 2002-2003) it was merely an expensive pimped up SpamAssassin box with a fancy user interface) and replaced the ageing 486 that was powering the entire company’s email with something beefier – as well as performing a major upgrade of Exim and having to rewrite its filtering/configuration files. Oh, and integrating Mailman for internal mailing lists and writing some PHP code to make it all look prettier and easier to use for the VFX producers. All that took a LOT of work. But when the business/non-production side wanted Microsoft’s bloated and super expensive Exchange – I explained I could implement a cheaper system at a third of the price which could do everything Exchange could – I was ignored. They went with Exchange and old muggings here had to implement a split email system (which worked well enough).

During all this time, my personal email was hosted by myself. I usually had some kind of Linux virtual machine running Exim and some IMAP/POP3 daemon, or in some cases, a Windows virtual machine and MDaemon. MDaemon was (and still is) a lovely Windows-based mail system. Very comprehensive. But for a single user or household, it’s flipping expensive and I had to eventually give it up. There were other times when I hosted my email on a cPanel account or server. But the point is that I’ve managing my own email with my own domain (the one you’re reading this post on, in fact) since 1997. I went through more ISPs than people have had hot dinners. But my email address always remained the same.

When Google’s Gmail came on the scene around 2004, I thought it was one of the best web-based email systems around. It beat the living daylights out of Yahoo! and Hotmail. It had genuinely useful features. But you couldn’t attach a domain to it. You had to make do with a @gmail.com address, and you had to put up with advertising. This also meant no easy support from Google. But in 2006, Google started trialing Google Apps For Your Domain. It was initially free, and allowed you to attach a domain to Gmail and use it alongside other Google applications too. I started getting involved in the Google forums helping to support it, as I had liked it enough to move my email over to it. Having to use only a web browser for email when I was very disappointed in all dedicated email clients was wonderful. It meant that I could use different web browsers, but the functionality would remain the same. My bugbears against dedicated email clients included the use of fixed width fonts and word wrapping, email filtering was bad, or the quoting methodology was insane. I kind of liked Outlook for a while, and there were some workarounds to the quoting system, but when Microsoft updated Outlook, everything broke and I gave up.

When Google started offering paid versions of Google Apps For Your Domain (which had subsequently become just Google Apps), I started to pay for it. £5/month (well, less – but you need to factor in VAT). It enabled me to turn off advertising, so I had email privacy (with the usual caveats – you need to allow an email system to scan incoming email for spam, phishing and viruses – all this is automated and no human sees it). I had email privacy and a much bigger email quota to boot. And I had official support.

When I worked for Imagineer Systems (now Boris FX), I migrated the email system from a single virtual machine running on a dedicated box to Google Apps for Business. The cost saving alone was worth it. It just made everything easier and simpler to maintain.

Meanwhile back in workland (during my time at Memset), I was supporting customers who were also rolling their own email – albeit mainly via cPanel/WHM which does provide a very comprehensive set of tools. Some customers rolled their own separate Exim or Postfix configs, but mainly it was cPanel. Many a time I discussed us becoming a Google partner and supporting Google Apps, but Memset rolls its own cloud services and it was not something that ever was going to happen.

Where I work now, we using G Suite. And it makes light work of maintaining a corporate email system. It’s survived a company rebranding easily enough and the tools and services it provides is having a very positive impact on the business. We’re looking to extend that too, so’s all good. My experience with working with G Suite over the years is paying off!

Phew. After that long introduction, I’d like to get around to the whole reason I’m posting this thing in the first place. The cost of ISP branded email and its use after you move ISPs.

As you can appreciate from above, a lot of work goes into managing email systems and it’s also not cheap depending on the system you go for. Many ISPs used to roll their own email systems using open source applications like Sendmail, Exim, Postfix, Amavis, etc. but when Google opened up its Google Apps for Domains to ISPs, a number of them switched to that.

Then Google ended Google Apps for ISPs, and they had to move to yet another system. Some moved to Yahoo!, some moved back to hosting email internally again, others to other externally hosted services.

And many did move to externally hosted services because maintaining a functioning email system for thousands of customers – even using open source tools – takes considerable time, effort and money. Scaling such a system is expensive. Keeping it functioning when many hundreds or thousands of people keep hitting the POP3 or IMAP server every few minutes requires monitoring and maintenance.

So why should ISPs expect to maintain your email, for free, and for life, when you leave their broadband service? I find it doesn’t make any kind of sense either economically or practically.

Apparently Sky do let you keep your email address when you leave them, but as they’re using Yahoo!, I doubt it costs them much to do so. Yahoo! does the heavy lifting and you probably get adverts within your mail which recoups the cost of the maintaining your account.

They key thing here is: how much do you want to pay for your email? It’s never free. There is always some cost attached to it. One option may be using an ad-blocker – but this is deprives the provider from any income which is used to pay for your hosting. Another option is to move to a dedicated email provider such as Yahoo!, Gmail or Outlook.com – but you’ll end up with having to cope with adverts. Yahoo! offers a paid upgrade option which gets rid of them. Outlook.com too (Outlook Premium).

You could use your old ISP mail when you move ISPs, but for the likes of BT and TalkTalk who charge – it’s not an unreasonable charge in comparison to other hosting options out there. But here’s what I would do:

  • Buy a domain. Any domain. They don’t need to be expensive, but you what to find something that’s going to last a bloody long time.
  • Find a dedicated email hosting provider. Follow any instructions they give on how to set things up (or get your family IT tech support to help out!) – or consider the likes of G Suite, Office 365, or even Rackspace.
  • Depending on how you have your email set-up at the moment, you’ll either need to migrate all existing mail into the new hosting provider, or you’d need to move you email to the new account within your email client. With Outlook, it may be easier to export your old mailboxes as PST files and import them into the new account, then delete the old ISP mail account afterwards. Again, your new email hosting provider can help you with this (or your friendly family IT manager can!).

The domain part is important because it means that you get to choose any email address you like at that domain. Providing you continue to pay for the domain and hosting, you never need to change email addresses ever again. I also think that if you’re running a business, a domain name makes things a lot more professional.

So I completely disagree with Ofcom’s assessment that ISPs are charging too much to keep old email addresses. I think this would become less of a problem if ISPs allowed you to host a domain name with them for the purposes of email (or free web space – which is still a thing, apparently). You either import or buy (cheaply) a domain and use it with the ISP for your email. When you need to move ISPs, you provide the new ISP with the domain name they take care of the move for you. How about that? That could potentially work.