The Personal Computing Paradigm
The Killer @
It is a common misconception among people I know that the Web is the Internet, or vice-versa. One possible reason is that the popular media has done a good job of confusing technology issues. Another might be the fact that the icon for Internet Explorer on the Win95 desktop is labeled "The Internet." However, the real reason might be that people see the Web as the Internet's "killer app." In a sense, they're right. If not for the Web, the Internet wouldn't be as popular as it is today. No one would be talking about set-top devices like WebTV or hot startups like Yahoo!
Just as television is more "popular" than the telephone, the Web is more glamorous than its predecessor, e-mail. Still, I were forced to keep only one from each category, I'd stick with the older technology. In my view, e-mail is the Internet's "killer app." Unlike the Web, it's bidirectional, fast, static, and personal.
More Than Messages
E-mail is more convenient. Sure, I can check the latest news on the Web, but it's a task I have to remember to do. It takes longer. I don't have time to read all the daily pages at one sitting, so I must remember which sites I've visited and which articles I've only half read. If I want to refer back to something I've read, it might be difficult to find on a future date.
In this respect, e-mail is great. A free service offered by InfoBeat,<http://www.infobeat.com>, e-mails me the latest weather, news, and sports information daily. (I still have to visit the Web for Mac news, though.) Claris Emailer takes keeps track of what I've read and saves all non-spam messages in its database. Some of the best online communities I've found are not on Usenet or the Web; they're on mailing lists. Emailer files messages from each list in its own folder. Unlike Usenet and the Web, messages won't disappear if I don't get to them within a week. They patiently wait, flagged as unread, until I have a chance to look at them.
For me, it's important that the mail program's database contains a record of all my digital conversations. Its address book (minimal, though it is) keeps track of my online contacts. It's incredibly useful to be able to search through messages of a week, a month, or even a year ago. Carrying a Zip disk with my Emailer database on it, I can easily bring all this information with me. The fine folks at Bare Bones Software (who also make the excellent BBEdit text editor) are hard at work on their new e-mail client, MailSmith, which should be a fast and powerful alternative. It promises to incorporate many of BBEdit's features, including Grep searching. E-mail, like software from Bare Bones, draws its strength from being simple, yet powerful.
Twice in the last year or so, my almost-200-MB mail database became corrupted. The first time, I lost about a week's worth of mail, some of it unprocessed. The second time, I lost only a day's worth--about the best that can be expected with a daily backup schedule. My online day is so centered around Emailer--and I've come to rely on it to keep track of so many things I can't remember--that losing a mere 50 messages makes me feel disoriented. Suddenly, I can't recall where I was in a certain conversation, whether I'd responded to the reader who wanted to change his subscription, or what URL
of the "must-read" Web site someone sent me was. I suppose these events are the inevitable consequences of relying on technology.
Now, I keep my mail database small, to minimize data loss should it become corrupted. There's an excellent AppleScript called "Emailer Archive" which transfers Emailer messages into a FileMaker Pro database <http://www.fogcity.com/em_utilities2.0.html>. The database is designed to look like Emailer's folder-based filing system, but has more power when searching old messages. With this solution, Emailer's own database remains small, increasing its speed and conserving space on incremental backups.
Another question is security. A recent "packet sniffing" incident on my LAN convinced me that e-mail really isn't very secure at all. Fortunately, software exists to keep it private. It's called PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption, and it's free for non-commercial use <http://www.pgp.com>.
PGP uses a public key/private key system. To send someone an private message, PGP uses the recipient's public key and the sender's private key to encrypt a message. Only the recipient's private key can decrypt the message. An equally useful feature is PGP's authentication, which uses the same key system to verify that the message really came from the person you think it did.
PGP is here today, and it works; but it's a pain to use. Software
exists to integrate it with popular e-mail clients such as Emailer and Eudora. In Emailer's case, a set of buttons are added to the top of each message window. They allow you to lookup someone else's key, encrypt, decrypt, and authenticate messages. The integration just isn't very smooth. For each PGP-encrypted message, you must manually instruct the mail program to decrypt and/or authenticate. Whenever you send a message, you must click the encrypt button and enter your PGP passphrase. This security measure prevents someone else from impersonating you by using your computer to send out e-mail, but it becomes a nuisance if you send more than five or six messages per day. Many people send ten times that. I wish there was a way for the e-mail client to let you "login," entering your PGP passphrase once per session.
Another problem is that if you use PGP to encode mail you send, it remains encoded in your sent mail folder. This means you can't search sent messages--or view them at all--because they can only be decoded by the intended recipients.
I think a well-implemented secure e-mail client could be the next "killer app" for the Internet. Who knows what seamless integration of encryption and authentication into e-mail clients would mean to e-mail-based services? More importantly, I think it could inspire confidence in the Internet and technology in general. Even if information isn't "private," individuals psychologically like to know that messages they read are genuine and messages they send arrive unaltered. I know I do. With all the e-mail clients out there, you'd think that someone could add a useful feature like good security integration. I hope they will.
Microsoft and the Future
E-mail is clearly a critical part of the Internet's future, so whatever
direction it takes will have lasting significance. Microsoft certainly wants
to be part of that future, so it recently bought an Internet startup, HotMail
<http://www.hotmail.com>. HotMail is the largest company that provides free Web-based e-mail accounts in exchange for displaying their advertisements and recording your name and address in their database. It has 9.5 million users! That's more than America Online--a company that's been in the e-mail business since the Sculley era--and several times the cumulative usership of the still-not-
very-successful Microsoft Network.
Like AOL, HotMail hadn't yielded much profit, but its value to Microsoft was in controlling how you view your e-mail. E-mail software, to a certain extent, has great influence over how you work and think. Guess what that means for the e-mail software provider!
This is why Microsoft is giving away a full-fledged e-mail client, too. Outlook Express, a "lite" Macintosh version of the Outlook e-mail and contact management package for Windows is now available from Microsoft's Web site. In terms of stability it feels more like a beta version than a polished product (like Internet Explorer 4.0, it seems rushed out the doors to make a Macworld San Francisco debut). Nevertheless, it has some nice features--multiple e-mail account support (a must these days!), a good address book, basic mail actions (or "rules" in Microsoft parlance), and nifty multi-user support. It has a colorful interface and supports trendy (but not very useful) HTML in e-mail. These features only partially mask the fact that it's not even close to the elegance of Claris' Emailer. This hasn't stopped the speculation that Outlook Express spells death for Emailer (and even Eudora, some say)[!]. No one knows which e-mail software, if any, can compete with the free offering from the folks up in Redmond.
Rumors, sparked by a Macworld UK article, began circulating that Claris had stopped Emailer development. On January 27, Apple announced that it was spinning off Claris' database business into FileMaker, Inc. and transferring control of other Claris products such as ClarisWorks and Claris Emailer to Apple. Although an Emailer 2.0v3 update release is expected soon (containing an improved address book, among other enhancements and bug fixes), Claris hasn't said whether or not Emailer 3.0 is in the works. I hope it is.
Rumor has it that Apple is working on a package called Mail Services that will integrate e-mail with the operating system. PowerTalk, first included with System 7 Pro, was something like this. PowerTalk provided a universal in-box on the desktop, allowed any application written to its specifications (not many) to act as a "mailer," provided a handy "keyring" for keeping track of passwords, and much more. It was yet another case of Apple over-engineering a product targeting a market that wouldn't exist until four years after release, and delivering a RAM-hungry, half-baked piece of software which never reached its full potential because of the unfavorable first impression it made. If Apple had quietly polished PowerTalk until it worked great, then waited for the market to understand its profound utility, it would have been a tremendous success. I wish I could run such a product on my Mac right now. I don't, but that doesn't mean there isn't hope.
Apple (current owner of Emailer) could fold the product's capabilities into the operating system and Mail Services. Alternatively, they could bundle it with ClarisWorks and compete with Office. There is tremendous potential waiting to be tapped by integrating the Internet (and e-mail) with Mac OS. Apple is in a unique position to do this. They can use ideas and technology from PowerTalk and a MacWorld-Eddy-winning e-mail client as a foundation for something insanely great.
"The Personal Computing Paradigm" is © 1998 by Michael Tsai,<email@example.com>.Michael is still searching for the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.
Also in This Series
- How Cool Is Your Mac? · May 2012
- Mac OS X’s Increasing Stability · August 2006
- Coping With Mac OS X’s Font Rendering · January 2006
- E-Mail Archiving with Eudora and Mail.app · January 2003
- Grab Bag · October 2002
- Mac OS X 10.2—First Impressions · September 2002
- Mac OS X 10.1—First Impressions · October 2001
- Mac OS X Tips · June 2001
- Mac OS X—Finally · May 2001
- Complete Archive