Do You Remember Email Blackout Periods?


It is rather amazing to be old enough to remember corporate mandated email blackout times. Yes younglings, there was a time when corporations would deliberately shut down their email servers for several hours during the day. Some would take them down, at least for internal access, two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. I can remember reading in “Computer World” or some other industry trade rag interviews with leaders of major corporations about their email black out policies. I know it is difficult for you who while away hours tapping away on your idiot phone instead of doing actual work at work, but the looking busy while goofing off at work skill had to be much more finely honed back then.

You see, the first big boon to looking busy while goofing off at work came with Microsoft Windows. Corporations initially bought into the “productivity” marketing tactic given that office workers would be able to create spreadsheets and word processing documents without the noise and expense of a typewriter or adding machine. The real productivity boost came from not having to retype the entire document to make a few changes. You could save it, make some changes, save it again and print as many copies as needed all without having to hear the thump thump thump of typeface against platen.

People who weren’t already into computers or the thought of them did not like these new contraptions which might reduce the number of grunt office workers needed to keep the paper flowing. This was about the time Windows 3.1 came out. The incentive for such workers was the default installation came with a solitaire game. You could turn the sound off and play in a small window. When someone came by you could click on the thing you were actually supposed to be working on and few were the wiser.

One of the next “productivity boosts” came when corporations decided certain people should also work at home in the evenings and on weekends. They started buying computers and adding phone lines so these people could “get more done.” Trouble was we had Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) back then. People would hook the phone line to a modem and dial out for porn, games, and sometimes actual software to help them do their jobs only to get a host of viruses which then got transported to the office on floppy disks. This created a slew of jobs for people to spend their day trying to clean viruses off the computers at work. They couldn’t ever win because every time people took stuff home they re-infected the machines at work.

A few companies started to purchase laptops but they were slow and expensive. Unlike today, the laptops of yesteryear couldn’t hold a candle to the low end corporate standard desktop. Most of you are too young to believe any of this so let me provide a bit of reference that will shock you.

From Microsoft:

Windows 3.1/3.11

Standard Mode:

* Intel 80286 (or higher) processor

* 1 MB or more of memory (640K conventional and 256K extended)

* 6.5 MB of free disk space (9 MB is recommended)

386 Enhanced Mode:

* Intel 80386 (or higher) processor

* 3 megabytes (MB) total memory (4 MB is recommended)

* 8 MB of of free disk space (10.5 MB is recommended)

Windows For Workgroups 3.11:

* 80386sx microprocessor or better

* 3 megabytes (MB) total memory (4 MB is recommended)

* 6.2 MB of hard drive space (14.5 MB recommended)

Please note the units are MB for Megabyte not Gigabyte. Please feel free to compare that with the Windows 10 requirements. Now maybe you understand how Microsoft got the reputation for “bloatware.”

Hard to believe we created spreadsheets and wrote novels with such devices, but we did. We created spreadsheets and wrote novels using DOS and machines with less than 640K as well. Our creations didn’t have animation or embedded cat videos though.

Not long after that the Internet got sold to America as a bill of goods with only up-side potential. Pretty soon the next “cost cutting” measure sold to upper management was email. Yes, dial-up content providers like America On-Line (AOL), Prodigy and CompuServe all had their own captive email services, but businesses weren’t willing to buy into a system which couldn’t reach everyone. Eventually an email standard got published. The big content providers had to begrudgingly adopt the standard bit by bit because customers were going to these low cost email systems and the few remaining customers those providers had wanted to be able to email all of _those_ people. Finally, many corporations began setting up their own email servers and giving some employees access to them.

Remember the viruses coming in on floppy thing? Well, email was an 8-lane highway for them to come in. Eventually every office worker could make a claim of needing email to do their job and accounts were passed out company wide. How was this cheaper? Companies were saving a fortune on envelops, postage and overnight couriers. Now when paper went out it was either a catalogue or something which needed a signature.

Office workers now had a shiny new way to look busy while goofing off. Unless someone managed to embed a picture or used a funky font, every email looked like every other email on the screen. Unless someone was actually monitoring the email traffic one couldn’t tell people were spending their entire morning exchanging email about where to have lunch and most of their afternoons about where to meet up after work. You know, the thing you do now with the idiot phone and chat applications. You may tell yourself it is work related, but it is not. Unlike your identity theft enabling device though, corporations controlled the email server. It started only being “up” or “available” for an hour or two in the morning and an hour or two before quitting time. This is when we started to see articles about email blackout periods in industry rags with quotes like:

“We turn it off at set times per day so people can get some actual work done.”

Some viewed these steps as draconian measures which thwarted productivity, but, they worked. Not only did these measures worked, but they slowed the spread of email viruses. Once a virus was identified in email on the server the server could be quickly cleaned before the email went out to some fool that would actually open it.

Email viruses were just annoying until some unloved creature decided to prove everyone stuck in a cube farm felt unloved. They wrote the “I Love You” email virus and sent it out. If anything sold the world on email blackout times it was the “I Love You” virus. An email with a return address of someone you knew or who worked at your company and a subject line stating “I Love You.” Yes, those trapped in the cube farm did really feel unloved enough to click on it. The little virus attached to it sent the same virus laden message out from your email account to everyone in your address book. Quite honestly it brought the Internet to its knees. Some of the companies with blackout periods got out relatively unscathed but the entire situation brought about some serious education about the proper use of company email. It also brought about stringent email monitoring by many companies. Some say it was the first real technology privacy battle, but, it was their email server, their computer _and_ you were at work. You had best think about that before signing up for Google Fiber. According to everyone I’ve spoken with who sees the contract the fine print pretty much states they own you and privacy is non-existent. You are basically signing a document giving them permission to do to you what the NSA has been accused of doing to you for years.

Eventually, people started behaving a bit better with company email and the corporate email police got rather draconian firing people which scared some who didn’t believe everything was being monitored into doing their naughty stuff at home with their own computers. Oh, you still hear the odd story today of someone getting canned for “improper use of email” or some such druther, but, for the most part these terminations just happen and the story never generates any traction. When it does make the news it is when someone gets caught doing horribly illegal things and law enforcement has to be brought in.

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

This same day of reckoning is going to happen with those company chat things you use at work from your private phone. Eventually, if they haven’t already, someone will find a way to send a virus through those things then the email police will have to become the chat police and bad things will happen. We are also very close to a period in time where personal cell phone use will be disabled within office space. We got pretty close to that once before. I don’t know exactly how they did it, but I have worked at client sites where only a company issued BlackBerry would work inside. Didn’t matter what carrier you had, your cell phone showed zero bars.

Keep your eyes open little buckaroos, this new wave of blackout periods is coming.

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