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Email pioneer says breakthrough was too much trouble

'If I'd known I'd never have written that piece of code'

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The man who invented the internet's most popular email routing system says he would never have done it had he known how much trouble it was going to be.

Eric Allman, who founded email routing system Sendmail, tells this week's edition of technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio that he would "never have agreed" to the project had he known how much work it was going to be.

"Berkeley [at University of California] was supposed to build the internet platform for research, and one of the things they needed was an internet mailer, an SMTP mailer, and so I let myself get talked into writing that piece of code," said Allman, who was not paid for his work.

"To be honest if I had known how much work it would have been I would probably never have agreed to do it. It was harder to write than I expected. Most people who have worked on this sort of thing say the same; it looks deceptively easy till you actually get in to try and do it."

Allman's email routing system is used all over the world still to send emails between systems. It began as what Allman calls a "technical solution to a political problem" when students wanted to access the Arpanet network which was the predecessor to the internet.

"I said what they really want is email, so I can connect the Arpanet to the network we already had at Berkeley called the Berknet and forward email around, it was a very, very simple program and it worked, sort of," he said.

That early system, Delivermail, morphed into Sendmail, still the most popular mail transfer agent (MTA) on the internet. It remains the standard MTA in various Unix operating systems.

Allman did not form a company around his technology until the late 1990s, and watched college contemporaries become millionaires and leading lights of Silicon Valley. He was at college with Eric Schmidt, the Google chief executive who used to run Novell, and Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy.

"There were a lot of people at Berkeley at that time who were incredibly, scarily bright people, many of whom have gone on to be well known in the industry today," said Allman. "One person said Bill [Joy] had more ideas in an afternoon than he would have in a month. People would follow Bill around just hoping to get an idea they could turn into a PhD thesis."

Allman said he could not have formed a company around Sendmail to rival the products of Silicon Valley in the 1980s such as Apple or Microsoft or Sun because email was not ubiquitous until much later.

"Email wasn't the phenomenon then that it is now. Email was something that the geeks wanted but the commercial people didn't. I could have started earlier but I probably would have gone out of business because there wouldn't have been many people willing to buy it," he said.

See: OUT-LAW Radio

Copyright © 2006, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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