Electronic mail, or e-mail, is a widely used Internet application that enables individuals or groups of individuals to quickly exchange messages, even if they are separated by long distances. A user creates an e-mail message and specifies a recipient using an e-mail address, which is a string consisting of the recipientís login name followed by an @ (at) sign and then a domain name. E-mail software transfers the message across the Internet to the recipientís computer, where it is placed in the specified mailbox, a file on the hard drive. The recipient uses an e-mail application to view and reply to the message, as well as to save or delete it. Because e-mail is a convenient and inexpensive form of communication, it has dramatically improved personal and business communications.
In its original form, e-mail could only be sent to recipients named by the sender, and only text messages could be sent. E-mail has been extended in two ways, and is now a much more powerful tool. Software has been invented that can automatically propagate to multiple recipients a message sent to a single address. Known as a mail gateway or list server, such software allows individuals to join or leave a mail list at any time. Such software can be used to create lists of individuals who will receive announcements about a product or service or to create online discussion groups. Of particular interest are Network News discussion groups (newsgroups) that were originally part of the Usenet network. Thousands of newsgroups exist, on an extremely wide range of subjects. Messages to a newsgroup are not sent directly to each user. Instead, an ordered list is disseminated to computers around the world that run news server software. Newsgroup application software allows a user to obtain a copy of selected articles from a local news server or to use e-mail to post a new message to the newsgroup. The system makes newsgroup discussions available worldwide.
E-mail software has also been extended to allow the transfer of nontext documents, such as photographs and other images, executable computer programs, and prerecorded audio. Such documents, appended to an e-mail message, are called attachments. The standard used for encoding attachments is known as Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME). Because the Internet e-mail system only transfers printable text, MIME software encodes each document using printable letters and digits before sending it and then decodes the item when e-mail arrives. Most significantly, MIME allows a single message to contain multiple items, enabling a sender to include a cover letter that explains each of the attachments.