Determining who the early email providers were is actually a bit trickier than it appears. Email itself has amorphous beginnings, as it was a natural evolution from file systems to the type of email we’re familiar with today. Depending on how one defines email, the earlier providers could go back as far as 1965.
In the early days of computing, something akin to modern email developed naturally. Different users who worked on the same workstation usually had their own individual directories, to store their various working files. Colleagues who wanted to leave them a message, then, might write a message and leave it in their friend’s personal directory, so they would see it the next time they logged on to the system.
While a far cry from modern email providers, this was none the less a sort of electronic mail. In many ways, it was akin to leaving a letter at someone’s front door, rather than giving it to a post office to deliver. The first of these early providers was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in 1965. It was called, simply enough, MAILBOX.
By the early 1970s computers had evolved a little bit. Rather than everyone working on isolate mainframes that couldn’t talk to each other, they were now able to communicate from computer to computer. This meant that it was a bit more complex to get a message to someone than to simply put it in their personal directory, because you also had to identify what computer they were on. In order to facilitate this, some sort of easy addressing system was needed. In 1972 a man named Ray Tomlinson, who worked for ARPANET, the predecessor of the modern Internet, came up with something fairly similar to modern email.
Tomlinson decided to use the @ symbol to separate the user’s name from their host computer. Using that symbol methodology, anyone on a network could be addressed simply by using the format name@computer. This simple little "hack," as it was once described, would have a revolutionary input. The ability to easily communicate over the ARPANET via email made it incredibly useful to the military personnel who were driving its development. Not only that, but this was something that had obvious civilian use. This tiny little development by 1975 meant email made up more than three-fourths of ARPANET traffic, and that people in the outside world were beginning to get excited about its potential.
A number of developments followed over the next decade, although the email system remained relatively simple. By 1988 some widely-adopted offline readers started appearing. These were, in many ways, the first real email providers, or email receivers. Eudora was probably the most widely-used of these providers in the early years. Pegasus Mail was also among the early providers.
Once the World Wide Web made its appearance, email was able to be used not only through external software, but also by using web-based email providers. Hotmail was the first of these major providers, going live in 1996, and eventually being acquired by Microsoft. Other early email providers included Excite’s email service, and Yahoo!’s email service. In 2004 Google entered the crowded arena of providers, innovating the field with a number of new features and rapidly acquiring a large market share. Since then many of the older email providers have followed in Gmail’s footsteps, implementing larger mailbox sizes, robust searches, and more AJAX-influenced interfaces.