Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 130 / JUNE 1991 / PAGE 92

Ez e-mail. (electronic mail) (evaluation)
by Gregg Keizer

Postal rates skyrocket. Letters take days to traverse three states, nearly a week to wend their way from California or New York to your home office in the heartland. Messages get lost in the hog pile of junk mail.

Your home office demands reliable and rapid communications. Since you're trying to do it all yourself--perhaps running your business from home, moonlighting, or maybe doing day work at night--a break in your link to the outside world can be disastrous.

Electronic mail, or E-mail, can keep you connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can maintain business relationships, develop new leads, and improve your at-home productivity with round-the-clock communications. Faxes can, of course, do much of this, too, but a fax machine costs at least $500. For less than half of that, you can equip your computer with a modem and E-mail software to integrate your communications with the rest of your PC work.

E-mail is actually a very specialized form of telecommunications. Like other forms of telecommunications, it uses computes, telephone lines, and modems to transmit information. Often designed to mimic paper mail, E-mail uses such familiar terms a mailbox and address, and often charges for each message delivered, just like the post office. E-mail goes beyond simple messaging, though, to offer fax, relex, paper, and overnight delivery options. Increasingly, it doesn't matter whether the recipient has a computer.

In a crowded, busy home office, you want to make electronic mail as easy as possible: as simple as dropping a ltter in the mailbox. Several software packages and integration techniques can turn your PC into a personal letter carrier.

E-Mail for the Masses

Of the 15 to 23 million E-mail users worlwide, most zip messages across private internal networks at major corporations. For those of us at home, though, it's the public E-mail networks that count.

MCI Mail is perhaps the best known of these services. Although it uses a stiff and outdated interface, MCI Mail holds the most promise for home office users. That's because of its popularity among business users. If your customers and clients use an E-Mail network, they probably use MCI Mail--or anetwork you can reach through MCI Mail. Not only can you send text messages, but you can also transmit faxes and telexes, post paper mail, and even drop off mail to a CompuServe subscriber's mailbox. MCI Mail's Preferred Pricing option lets you send up to 40 messages (including faxes) for a flat fee of $10 per month. It's perfect for home office workers. And since you connect with MCI Mail via an 800 number, it doesn't cost extra to check for mail throughout the day.

CompuServe is an interesting alternative to MCI Mail. The giant online service features excellent E-mail capabilities that connect you to its three-quarter million subscribers. More important, you can also exchange messages with MCI Mail addresses and send faxes. If you're using CompuServe Information Manager to navigate the online service (highly recommended), you can easily compose mail offline and then connect when you're ready to send. There's no additional charge for E-mail, but you pay the normal rates, or 21 cents per minute if you're using a 1200-bps modem. End result? You pay about the same to send a message to a CompuServe subscriber as you do to send one to someone on MCI Mail.

If you subscribe to a different online service--America Online, People/Link, PC Link, Prodigy, GEnie, or Delphi--you can post electronic mail to any other subscriber. Ease of E-mail varies from service to service; America Online makes E-mail a snap, primarily because of its GeoWorks Ensemble interface. Delphi and GEnie, however, canbring beginners to their knees. Prodigy makes you pay for each message above the 30 free you're allowed each month.

All share a flaw, though. The recipient must subscribe to the same online service as the sender. You can't guarantee that everyone you want to reach will be available through your designated E-mail service. It;s as if each state had its own postal service and couldn't swap parcels with its neighbors.

A solution comes from DASnet, an interpreter for more than 50 E-mail services. You keep your current E-mail network but send messages to DASnet instead, which first translatets and then retransmits the mail so that it's understood and accepted by the recipient's service. DASnet isn't cheap--you pay $4.75 a month and around $0.75 per message. But it has the advantage of extending your E-mail reach tO include virtually anyone with an electronic mailbox.

Manage Your Mail

In the frantic, every-minute-counts home office, E-mail had better be almost as easy as licking a stamp. Your PC promised to free you from drudgery and let you concentrate on turning a profit or staying productive at home.

The ideal scene would be something like this: You're writing with your word processor, and you decide to send a message to a client in California. You type out the message, pull down a menu, and pick Send Mail. Choose the customer's name from a list that appears and hit Enter. That's it.

Unfortunately, things aren't that simple--yet. The best you can hope for is some help with and shielding from the intricacies of E-mail. Something to protect you from interfaces only a techie could love.

If you're using MCI Mail, Lotus Express can automate many of your E-mail tasks, including calling MCI, retrieving and sending messages and files, and even regularly checking your files, and even regularly checking your mailbox for new mail. Express is a memory-resident program, so you can call it up from within most applications and then put it away when you're done. It also simplifies the complex job of sending spredsheet, word processing, and graphics files via MCI Mail. But don't expect a dazzling interface from EXpress; it's several years old and looks it.

PC Tools Deluxe 6.0 also offers some MCI Mail assistance. As with Express, you can keep PC Tools in memory so that it's just a hot-key press away, no matter what application you're working in. PC Tools' communications module includes an MCI Mail script that calls MCI and then downloads waiting mail or uploads your messages. Unlike Express, PCTools won't automatically check your mailbox or upload files. As a simple mail retriever and transmitter, though, it works well.

PC integrated packages offer mail tools, too. Integrated software components usually share and swap data with little effort. In Microsoft Works, for instance, the communications module links you to your E-mail service, and the word processor composes mail and saves the messages to disk. You save time because you don't have to quit one program and run another to switch from writing to mailing; instead, you just swtich windows.

Another way to integrate E-mail into your PC workday is with a multitasking environment like DESQview. Potent on a 386, DESQview lets you keep several programs active simultaneously. DESQview also gives you limited cut-and-paste capability, so it's possible to compose mail in your favorite word processor and then paste the text into your E-mail manager. DESQview can be temperamental, though, and you may spend lots of time tinkering with it in an attempt to get everything working smoothly. Unless you're an experienced PC user or familiar with DESQview, consider another direction.

The direction, and potentially the path to E-mail of the future, lies in graphical operating environments like Windows and GeoWorks Ensemble. Both point-and-click products put a lot of sotck in integrating your work and in connecting applications to their documents. Although GEOS applications are scarce and typically underpowered, you can use GeoWrite, a GEOS word processor, to write messages and then create a workable E-mail manager with GeoComm, a communications program. Multiple windows, cut-and-paste capabilities, and multitasking in both GeoWorks Ensemble and Windows let you quickly compose mail, copy it to a clipboard, jump to a communications window, and paste in the message once you're connected to the service.

Make E-Mail Easy

Stick with what you know. That's the best way to ease into E-mail. Rather than depend on the limited text editor that accompanies your E-mail manager, compose mail with your work processor. You know its commands, it probably includes a spelling checker, and it can certainly save work as ASCII files, the preferred format for E-mail.

Some E-mail managers work in the background. In other words, they'll send and retrieve mail while you work on something else. Lotus Express can run like this, as can PC Tools under DESQview. Multitasking environments such as GeoWorks Ensemble and Windows offer background telecommunications as a matter of course. The idea sounds intriguing, and you may be tempted, but for most home office workers, smoothing the wrinkles associated with background E-mail isn't worth the trouble. You may spend hours testing and retesting and then, because you're a small-volume E-mailer, only save a moment or two each day. Be sure the payoff is worth the effort before you get in too deep.

One of E-mail's greatest assets is its portability. You can take your mailbox with you whenever you go, if you use E-mail. If you travel with a laptop computer, equip it with a pocket modem (Practical Peripherals makes a great miniature 2400-bps modem) so you can read and send mail on the road.

Another E-mail bonus, especially when you're using an online service as your mail provider, is easy file transfer. Services such as America Online< which uses the GeoWorks Ensemble interface, are especially adept at simplifying the process. In America Online you can attach a file to an E-mail message. It doesn't matter what kind of file it is--WordPerfect document, Quattro Pro work sheet, or PC Paintbrush graphic--America Online ships it to its destination with a few clicks of the mouse. You can cut costs and delivery time by sending files rather than expressing disks.

Finally, look in your mailbox. Do it religiously. Lotus Express checks your mailbox for you at regular intervals, but you've got to take the initiative with other E-mail managers. I look at MCI Mail first thing at 9:00 a.m. and last thing at 7:00 p.m. I also check CompuServe once a day and America Online three times a week.

Neither Snow, nor Rain....

Adding E-mail capabilities to your home office won't bankrupt you. You can pick up a 2400-bps modem and E-mail management software for just a bit more than $200. The cost may be small, but the benefits are huge--constant communications that are more likely to be read and answered than traditional letters.

If you're unsure about an E-mail strategy, start with MCI Mail and a simple E-mail manager. I recommend PC Tools; it's a painless way to get and give mail. The DESQview alternative is tantalizing but ultimately unwieldy because cut-and-paste operations between applications are so awkward. Nothing beats the slick way you click from word processor to communciations/E-mail manager in an environment like GeoWorks Ensemble or Windows. I like GEOS and hope E-mail management becomes part of that operating environment's software soon. And I'm following the development of PC contact software like Act!, which is rumored to include E-mail connections in its next version.

Today, E-mail is a viable alternative to the phone or the fax. More important, though, is the power and convenience of E-mail. Something that provides instant access to your clients, customers, and coworkers is addictive--so addictive, you may never want to lick another stamp.