Time to Replace SMTP

It seems to me that SMTP is showing enough strains with spam that it is time to invest in a new protocol.  If you don’t know what SMTP is, well, you probably aren’t interested in this article.  But maybe RFC 2821 can help.

I don’t take this proposal lightheartedly.  Replacing a protocol is extremely hard and expensive to do.  It’s as crazy as a plan to change all cars on the road to use a new style of brake lights.  With the billions of deployed mail clients and millions of deployed mail servers that are all working, it is virtually impossible to replace them all – unless there is a really compelling reason to do so.  Perhaps there is.

The problem with SMTP is spam, of course.  SMTP simply does not provide protection from spam.  It is so bad that today most users receive far more spam than legitimate email.  This has been a nuisance to end users, but is also a very costly problem for mail administrators and even for internet bandwidth as a whole.  Mail administrators today spend a significant amount of time and energy managing whitelists and blacklists for who can or cannot send email.  This is a manual process.  The spammers keep changing their addresses, and the cycle goes on.  So far, the spammers are winning, and there is currently no plan to change it.

I think we need to change it now.  SMTP was great for getting email started.  But it doesn’t work anymore, as defined by RFC 2821 itself:

“The objective of the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) is to transfer mail reliably and efficiently”

There is no doubt that today SMTP meets neither of these objectives. 

First, due to spam filters, email is no longer reliable.  Every email user has lost messages due to errant spam filters.  We don’t know how much we miss, but it is significant. And a mail transport is either reliable 100% of the time, or it is not reliable.  SMTP is not reliable.

Second, again due to spam, email is not efficient.  When a user must filter out 100 junk messages in order to find one real message, that is inefficient.  And most experts agree, this trend is getting worse, not better.

Our current path of improving spam filters ad-nauseam will never make SMTP able to accomplish it’s primary objective.  We need something better.  And while we’re at it, maybe we can finally add some interesting new mail features too.

More thoughts coming in my next article.

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