Q & A with Eric Thomas, L-Soft Founder and CEO
L-Soft Founder and CEO Eric Thomas, who began the email list communication industry in 1986 with the invention of LISTSERV, shares his reflections, visions and musings.
Q: What comes to mind when you think about LISTSERV's 20th anniversary?
A: It's been quite a journey ... it's still hard to believe that it's been 20 years; it feels more like 10. That makes me 10 years younger, too – that's good!
Q: What do you see as the most important development in email list communication since LISTSERV launched the industry 20 years ago?
A: There have been many exciting developments in these past 20 years, but in the end the most important one remains the introduction of automated list management in 1986. We had a situation where people did not want to create new lists because it took so much time to manage them, and people did not want to join lists because it took so long to get removed from them. On top of that, turnaround was so bad (a few days, sometimes over a week) that it was impossible to have a useful discussion. LISTSERV fixed all that. Even though it seemed like a pretty simple idea at the time, nobody had thought of doing it.
In addition, Eric cited optimized mail distribution in 1986; list archive searches in 1987; double opt-in in 1993; first spam filter in 1995; passive probes in 1996; mail-merge in 1998; virus protection in 2001; DomainKeys and embedded mail-merge in 2005; and the deliverability center in 2006.
Q: Please describe some of the high points and low points in the email list industry today.
A: We have not succeeded in stopping spam. We have succeeded in stopping viruses, at least at L-Soft (using F-Secure's system). We have succeeded in scaling up email – it's now going fast enough, which it wasn't in 1986. There's a lot of sender and recipient education still needed.
Q: What are some of the most memorable moments you'd point out since your invention of LISTSERV in 1986?
A: In 1995, at the height of the operating system cold war, IBM, Microsoft and Apple were in my computer room with their three boxes side by side, because we had the best email list hosting technology available. In the end, that was more important than what operating system we used and what other customers we had. Also, the Prime Minister of Sweden was the first Head of State to start a weekly newsletter, and it used LISTSERV. What amazed me is that he personally wrote the newsletter from his laptop, and if you wrote to him, he would answer himself. To me, a Prime Minister was someone who does not read his own mail, let alone his own email.
Q: Please describe some of the key challenges in the email list industry today, from your expert perspective.
A: Spam is the main problem because it is the root of all the deliverability problems we are experiencing. There is not going to be a silver bullet for the spam problem. This is a very small group of criminals who are mostly being left alone. And as long as the risk of getting caught remains low, there are going to be spammers.
Q: What do you see as possible solutions, or promising steps that can be taken to address these challenges?
A: Greed has returned to the industry with certification – it's disappointing that we've learned so little in the past 20 years. These schemes (like pay-for-click) didn't work in 1999. Email needs to become more reliable, more accountable. LISTSERV 14.5 provides a foundation on which one could build a better, certification-based solution to spam. You have to democratize the certification technology so everyone can afford it.
Q: What is your view of the direction in which the email list industry is moving in the short-term and perhaps further into the future?
A: There's no change of direction as far as I can tell. Deliverability is the keyword for 2006 and probably 2007.
Q: Are there any success stories, anecdotes, etc. regarding customers' use of LISTSERV that you'd like to share?
A: I had no idea in 1986 that LISTSERV would end up playing such an important role in people's lives, in some cases even saving lives. ACOR (Association of Cancer Online Resources) is the most dramatic example – you have people with a problem and they form a list to talk to each other. They're not doctors, but they connect with each other and with researchers running clinical trials. When you see something like that, it's amazing.
Q: Thinking back to the day LISTSERV's invention was complete in June 1986, what was your vision of the impact the software would have? And how have the 20 years since that day been a reflection of that?
A: That day it was about solving a problem. Everybody was so frustrated with the delays and the amount of work it took to run your own mailing list. I knew software could be written to do away with these issues, but I seemed to be alone with that belief, or perhaps people were starting to believe the doomsayers. Anyway, it really got on my nerves one day, and I just did it, I wrote LISTSERV in one long stretch. As far as I was concerned, the case was closed. I had proved that it could be done, and I was the proud owner of the most efficient lists in the net. But there turned out to be an amazing level of interest, everyone seemed to want a copy. LISTSERV was not my first major development, I was already known for having developed some of the most popular packages in BITNET, including the #1 chat program at the time. After a while, I realized that LISTSERV was even more useful than these other packages. So I spent more time on it and realized it was really helping people and
making the Internet more exciting and interesting. Little did I know this would become my main occupation. Sometimes a person wants to solve a small problem and then they realize they've solved a big problem.