(Source material can be found in Computing Services Bulletins and Reports, and in Academic Computing Services Focus Bulletins, available from SFU Archives )
SFU was an early and enthusiastic adopter of electronic mail nearly two decades before it became widespread in the general community. The use of email increased rapidly and quickly became an integral part of the campus culture.
SFU was among the first universities to offer email as a general service to faculty, staff and students, using the $Message command on the MTS mainframe system. Email had been invented some years earlier but was awkward and limited in scope. Its use within SFU and through inter-campus linkages had mostly been confined to the technical disciplines and professions.
The SFU President, VPs, Senior Administrators and their staff were set up to use email. This accelerated the early growth of email at SFU by intersecting with the increasing adoption of email among faculty, staff and students. Influencing the growth was a new full screen interface called $Fsmessage which made email easier to use. $Fsmessage was conceived and built by SFU's Michael Hayward. In 1985 SFU joined the Mailnet network to connect to hundreds of academic sites using Jane_Doe@sfu.mailnet style addresses. Mailnet was run by the Educom organization which still exists today as EDUCAUSE (www.educause.edu ).
SFU joined the BITNET network to connect to thousands of academic sites using email@example.com style addresses. It also indirectly connected to the fledgling Internet via the University of Michigan using addresses that looked like Jane_Doefirstname.lastname@example.org. By then, most SFU faculty and staff were using email. The sfufa-forum and apsa-forum email lists were created at this time. About 1500 students were using email. They could exchange email with SFU correspondents but were not allowed to send email off campus. This was partly due to the cost structure of the external network connections, though it was also due to the perceived lack of need, there being nobody off campus for the average student to correspond with. Now-familiar themes were emerging on using email for classroom communications, receiving unwelcome mail, using email lists, and connecting back to your email while traveling.
Technologies often come and go quickly. Innovative in 1985, SFU’s connection to Mailnet was retired because by 1987 it was obsolete.
SFU connected directly to the growing Internet using Jane_Doe@cc.sfu.ca style addresses. There was still little or no awareness or use of the Internet outside of academia. By this time one million email messages had been sent by SFU senders. Although spam was not yet a factor, nuisance, abusive and obscene messages were problems the SFU Postmaster had to deal with regularly.
By 1990, over 7000 faculty, staff and students were using email and students were allowed to send email off campus. In this year a project was undertaken to figure out how people could do their email directly on their desktop computers using the POP protocol, rather than via terminal connections from their desktops to the mainframe system. Eudora for the Macintosh was the first such program offered out of this project, initially using Jane_Doe@ucs.sfu.ca style addresses.
Following a major re-organization of Computing Services, a new campus-wide email service was made available using Jane_Doe@sfu.ca or email@example.com style addresses. PC users (pre-Windows) logged into Unix (fraser.sfu.ca) and used Elm for email. Eudora was widely adopted by Macintosh users. SFU programmer Ray Davison made some functional enhancements to Eudora. He is still recognized as a code contributor on the www.eudora.com website.
Email addresses were assigned based on people's last names. The first Smith who appeared in the system got firstname.lastname@example.org, the second got email@example.com, the second M. Smith got firstname.lastname@example.org and so on. If you know people whose email addresses are their last names, they have probably been at SFU for quite a long time (unless they have uncommon last names in which case you can't tell.) Academic Computing Services, in a rather questionable display of vanity, gave themselves and a few others addresses based on their first names (e.g. email@example.com).
The Unix-based technological design of the new email system was substantially as it is today, using the POP and SMTP protocols. SFU was among the earliest in the world to roll out that technology on a campus-wide basis.
The maillist application (pre-web version) was made available for managing email lists. Windows 3.1 was now running on PC desktops, and the NUPOP email program was used by some PC users. Interconnections between academic and corporate email systems became available via gateways from the Internet to CompuServe and Telecom Canada's Envoy system. In the corporate world it had been thought that an email standard called X.400 was the way of the future, not the Internet. The gateway connections to the Internet perhaps represented an end to that view. There was still little public use of email, though some of more technically-minded were using Bulletin Boards provided by ISPs via dialup connections.
In another example of rapid technological change, the BITNET network, which had provided faithful service since 1986, had become obsolete and SFU's connection was closed down. In fact it only lasted as long as it did because of its valued "store and forward" file transfer capability which did not require the sender to log into the destination system. Its demise left a gap in file transfer technologies that was not adequately replaced for years.
Eudora for Windows 3.1 was released this year and PC users started using it. Pine was offered as an alternative to Elm for people who still logged into the fraser.sfu.ca Unix system.
The Web, which had been introduced to campuses earlier in the decade, was by now widely available within academia and increasingly available in the general community via ISP dialup connections. Hotmail was launched in 1996 to allow anyone anywhere to use email via the Web as long as they could connect to it. By 1997, spam had become a daily problem at SFU and much of it seemed to be coming from Hotmail which appeared to be used for little else. In an attempt to control spam, Academic Computing Services blocked Hotmail from exchanging messages with SFU. The block was removed in record time about two hours later following an immediate storm of protests from SFU correspondents. In fact, personal use of Hotmail was already widespread. Apparently this included family members who were traveling in exotic locations and communicating back using Hotmail from Internet cafés!
Course email lists, which had been offered in a partially automated fashion since 1992, were fully automated, with adds/drops being automatically added or removed.
SFU Webmail was introduced, giving mobile users, primarily students and traveling faculty/staff, an easier option than having to learn Elm or Pine. The Melissa virus was one of the first well-known computer viruses to spread via email. SFU was less affected than many sites because it did not (and does not) use Microsoft email server technologies which are particularly targeted by virus writers. Home high-speed Internet connections were by now fairly common, provided by the Cable and Telephone companies, and email was finally becoming ubiquitous throughout the community, sixteen years after its initial adoption on university campuses.
Spam and viruses had become major nuisances for the average person. A large part of the email systems administrator’s job was and remains an ongoing "cat and mouse" game with the transmitters of spam and viruses, implementing server techniques and filters to reduce the flow, and keeping SFU off blacklists. In 2002 Elm and Pine were retired after more than a decade of use. (A look-alike called Mutt is still available on fraser.sfu.ca.)
After a major upgrade to the student information and registration system was implemented, most official communications were sent to applicants and current students by email rather than by paper.
In SFU's email system there are now over 40,000 active email account holders. Over 10,000,000 email messages are being delivered monthly and 15,000 SFU email lists are currently in use.