Sunday, October 30, 2005

E-Mail Time Capsule reported From Oct. 24, 2005 to Nov. 30, 2005, will collect thousands of letters that our readers have written to themselves. And we'll deliver them up to 20 years later.

Specifically you can ask for the message in 1 year, 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, or 20 years.
Preserving a physical time capsule is simple: just shove it in the dirt and forget about it. But the process gets a lot more complicated when you're trying to store something digitally. Simply scheduling an e-mail for future delivery is pretty easy--just a matter of writing it and setting a send date in the future. Some e-mail clients will do it for you, and small Web sites like will take over the task as well. But once your message is written and waiting to be sent, all kinds of things can happen to prevent delivery, particularly if you're going to be waiting for decades. Obviously we can’t 100% guarantee that our program will work, but we vastly increased the odds by using the same strategy that helps keep the Internet up and running--lots of redundancy.

Even though Forbes Magazine has been around for 85 years, and for a decade, we can't just assume that the company will be around in another 20 years--or that a database and application will be safe sitting on our servers for that long. But we can be fairly certain that if several different entities are charged with storing and potentially sending our e-mails, at least one of them will come through. So we decided to recruit two very different kinds of partners to help with this effort.

The first, Codefix Consulting, is a small technology consultancy based in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. Its president, Garrison Hoffman, wrote the e-mail time capsule application and designed the database that will store the messages, so we know he has the expertise to keep it running. He can also adapt the software to work on any new networks and computers that might come online in the future. By asking him to contribute, we're vesting our hopes in the entrepreneurial model of getting things done--by making the time capsule one individual's personal project, they'll be less likely to forget about it or abandon it.

For our second partner, we decided to go in the opposite direction, and choose a multi-billion dollar international corporation. The hope here is that a huge business can provide the support and expertise needed to keep our project going, and that it will survive in institutional memory--even if the employee in charge of it today drops the ball, someone else will pick it up.
That is a big gamble
We chose Internet giant Yahoo! (nasdaq: YHOO - news - people ) to take over the responsibility. Yahoo! has the savvy to shepherd our time capsule through whatever technological changes occur over the next 20 years. And their business is big enough and strong enough that we feel they're probably going to be around for a long time to come.
I suspect Yahoo, or some company that purchases Yahoo, will be around, but whether there will be email in 20 years is a questions.
On Nov. 30, 2005 we seal the time capsule, and copies of the application and data will be saved here at, at Yahoo! and at Codefix Consulting.

But the job's not over then. We don't want you to get three copies of your e-mail if all three applications stay up and running. So we've designed the software to keep the partners in touch with each other over the Internet. Once a year, a few days before that year's messages are set to go out, the application running on Forbes' servers will send a message to Yahoo! and Codefix, letting them know it's up and running, and that it's ready to send the e-mails. Once they get that message, Yahoo! and Codefix will stand down, and won't send duplicates.

But if something happens to the Forbes' server and that message doesn't get sent, the other two partners know something is wrong. Codefix Consulting's will then take over the year's mailings--and will send a message to Yahoo! to let it know the job is underway. In turn, if both Forbes and Codefix are down, Yahoo! won't get any messages at all, and that server will know it has to take over the mailings. All this happens automatically, so human intervention isn't needed.

There's still one weak link in the equation: What if you're using a different e-mail address in five, ten, or 20 years? Well, if that happens, you're not getting your message. But you can help improve the chances of delivery success by e-mailing yourself at a personal account, one operated by a major Internet company, or a job you expect to hold for a while. Don't send the message to your work address if you're planning to leave in a few months.

Will the entrepreneur, the media company, and the Internet giant be able to pull this project off? Send yourself an e-mail, and you'll find out the answer…in 20 years.

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