mail letter PIN

The latest innovation in electronic mail came with the introduction of AI-aided auto replies in Gmail – Smart Reply.

What the product does is read incoming messages in a user’s Gmail and suggest responses. The product is part of Google’s Inbox app for Android and iOS.

The story of Smart Reply was first heard six years ago on April 1, 2009. Gmail Autopilot, Google called it then. The app did what Smart Reply now does. Actually, it did more; like help users analyze when it’s time to break off a relationship judging from the tone of an email from your boo. Only it was a fools’ day joke. Aha!

Having told of the wonders of this new product, Google came clean in the terms and conditions:

“No, we don’t plan to scan every one of your incoming messages and automatically send the perfect reply.”

Of course Google is scanning our emails. We are not sure to what extent, but this is not what this article is about. Question is, how far along have we come to get here in email innovation?

It all started in 1971

Ray Tomlinson, a US programmer, sent the first email using the @ sign to connect the user’s name and the machine that hosts the mailbox. They say the first email was simply “QWERTYUIOP”, but no one knows for sure.


Tomlinson emails only ran on networked systems using the same software. In 1977, the US Department of Defense’s ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) – the early version of the internet – was used to connect to outside networks opening it up to more users.


Emails, previously an exclusive reserve of the military at ARPANET was introduced among academics and government workers. As at 1985, college students had email accounts from their campuses that could be used across the internet.


Astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis sent the first email from the ISS via a Macintosh Portable.

The content of the email: “Hello Earth! Greetings from the STS-43 Crew. This is the first AppleLink from space. Having a GREAT time, wish you were here,…send cryo and RCS! Hasta la vista, baby,…we’ll be back!”


Hotmail launched. The web-based email service was founded by Sabeer Bhatia.


Microsoft bought Hotmail for $400 million. At the same time, David Filo and Jerry Yang were launching Yahoomail services.


Spam; previously a brand of luncheon meat was added to the Oxford English Dictionary to mean an unsolicited e-mail. And the original meaning of “luncheon meat” would be forgotten forever.


RIM released the first Blackberry phone with “push-email” functionality. It was start of the era where email followed us around.


Gmail’s invitation-only beta launched on April 1, and became available to everyone in February of 2007.

Sometime in 2006

I got my first email; phumbiebynature[at]yahoo[dot]com

June 2015

Gmail released a new feature, ‘Undo Send’. The feature allows users to retrieve sent messages up to 30 seconds after sending. It was first introduced in 2009 as a Google labs project.

November 5, 2015

Gmail launches Smart Reply.

We have come a long way. Even Tomlinson (who is very much alive by the way), I’m sure, will shudder each time he thinks about what email has become today.

Gbenga Onalaja Author

Get the best African tech newsletters in your inbox