Mail: the Original Killer App

by Charles A. Gimon


(InfoNation Logo)

Once upon a time there was mail. Not the sort of paper mail that couriers in ancient Persia carried, but electronic messages that could run by themselves from one computer user to another.

Even before the worldwide spread of the Internet, users on large computers that operated with UNIX could send mail to each other. Mail was, in fact, "mail": a command called "mail" that you type in right from the UNIX prompt. If you have access to a UNIX system today (a shell account with your Internet service provider, or an account at a local university), you can still use the mail command that early netters used twenty years ago. To send a message from the UNIX prompt (usually a $ or %), enter the command:


by itself, and your mail will start to scroll across your screen. To send a message, enter the same command with the address you are mailing to right after it:


Type a period "." on a line by itself to end the message, or hit Control-D. It's a spartan way to send mail, but it's still popular with UNIX users today, because this command-line "mail" can be used in shell scripts and other simple programs. After all, e-mail is really just copying a text file from one computer user to another; it's not really different from copying a file from one directory to another on your PC at home.

Most UNIX users today use elm, a small program packaged with many UNIX systems, or pine, a program from the University of Washington. If you have a UNIX shell account, try entering "elm" or "pine" at the prompt. Elm is a bare-bones program that's widely used, but mostly because it's packaged with many UNIX systems. Check to see if pine is installed on your local system; if not, it's available from, starting in the /pine directory. Pine has easy menus for folders and address books; the newer versions of pine can even be used to read Usenet news.

Both of these programs use single-letter commands. Pine has a series of menus at different levels. Elm simply shows a list of messages in your incoming mailbox when you start. The basic functions mail, forward, and reply may be all you ever need to use. Elm numbers each message, and makes you type a message number to make that the 'current message'; you may find pine easier to move around in.

You could almost think of these programs as being text editors with mail functions working on top of them. Elm has you choose which UNIX text editor you want to use: vi, emacs, or whatever editor you might have available. The group in Washington that put together pine developed an easy-to-use editor just for pine: pico (PIne COmposition editor). Pico is available by itself now as a standalone UNIX text editor.

The configuration for both of these programs is saved in a file called elmrc or .pinerc. This file is a text file--you can change it with any text editor, but if you make changes to your configuration using the menu in the program, you're doing the same thing.

Both elm and pine let you use a file called .signature. You have to make this file yourself, and save it in your home directory. You have probably seen ".sig files" at the end of mail messages and Usenet posts before--in theory, they should be no more than four lines long, but this rule of netiquette is rarely followed that strictly. An address and a favorite quotation should be enough; an ASCII-art Hello Kitty is probably overkill.

Your new mail goes into your "inbox" on arrival. Elm displays your inbox right away, with an "N" for new mail, an "O" for old, unread mail, and no letter for read mail. Pine includes your inbox in its list of folder. The inbox is on whatever machine your Internet provider uses as a mail server. When you make another mail folder and move messages into it, that folder is a file in your home directory or a subdirectory of it. All these "mailboxes" are just big text files; you could use any program that reads text to look inside and see what's there. Programs like elm and pine are just there to organize things for you and make mail more convenient.

The usefulness of programs like elm or pine is that they work well with the rest of the UNIX environment, and the rest of the Internet, for that matter. They're transparent: you can see the exact text that you're sending. If you want to include another file, either a text message or a uuencoded binary file, you would use your UNIX editor to insert that file into the mail message you are sending. The disadvantage of elm or pine is also that they're artifacts of the UNIX world; if you're uncomfortable with that environment, you may not want to handle your mail there. If you connect to your Internet provider at a slow speed, say 2400 baud, or you have an inexpensive e-mail only account, elm or pine will probably be the only choices you have.

Today, with faster machines, faster connections, and increasingly sophisticated Internet applications like Netscape, most people use SLIP or PPP to connect to the Internet. With a SLIP or PPP connection, your home computer is connected directly to the Internet and sends packets right through your Internet provider like water through a pipe.

Do-everything environments for the Internet like Netscape or the Microsoft/Windows 95 family of apps include mail functions. Most Internet users with SLIP or PPP prefer to use a standalone mail program such as Eudora or Pegasus. These mail clients run on your home or office PC; you call your Internet provider using Winsock or another TCP/IP client, and the mail client grabs your mail over that connection.

The only thing these programs need for setup is the name of your popmail server; in other words, they need to know where your incoming mail is. Your Internet provider should be able to tell you what this is, probably a machine name like The mail client program will connect to this machine and pick up your new mail. In the menus for these programs, you will see options like "Check New Mail?"--this is just Eudora or Pegasus connecting to that machine, and then copying your new mail (a text file) to your computer. If you had a computer that was connected to the Internet 24 hours a day, mail could just sail right in; since most home users dial up their Internet provider a few minutes (or hours) a day, your mail will most likely go to a popmail server first, and sit there until you dial up.

Eudora is a product of Qualcomm, Inc. of San Diego, who also make sophisticated satellite communications products. The full application is called Eudora Pro. It can be ordered by mail or Internet, or it's available shrink-wrapped at popular electronic superstores. There's a stripped-down freeware version called Eudora Lite that can be downloaded directly from Qualcomm.

Eudora saves your incoming mail in a text file called in.mbx, copies of the mail you send in a text file called out.mbx, and mail you send to the "trash" in a text file called trash.mbx (emptying the trash means cleaning out this file). Make another mailbox from the menu, and it's also saved in a *.mbx file. The subdirectory \eudora\attach holds "attachments" that are sent to you; these should be uuencoded binary files such as images or programs, although text files can be attached as well (an annoying habit).

The menu choices are fairly self-evident: sending, receiving and reading messages isn't exactly rocket science. Eudora Light lets you create "nicknames" for persons you send mail to often, so you don't have to remember long e-mail addresses, or for groups of people, so you can send a mail message to several people at the same time. Eudora Light also lets you create a signature file.

Pegasus Mail was written--and is still copyrighted by--David Harris of Dunedin, New Zealand. It was originally written as a mail program for Novell networks. Today it's so associated with the Internet that its LAN background is forgotten, but it's still being used as a network mail client at many sites. Pegasus is freeware; a manual is available if you want documentation for advanced options. The manual isn't really necessary unless you want to support Pegasus as a standard mail client for a big office--charging for the manual appears to be a way for individuals to spread the program for free, while business and institutional users end up paying.

Pegasus mail keeps your messages as individual text files with the extension *.cnm in the directory \pmail\mail. As in Eudora, you can copy these files to floppy disks or other media for storage. The full contents of this directory contain your configuration, addresses, and so on--backing up just this subdirectory is enough to back up your mailbox.

Unlike Eudora light, Pegasus is a full-featured mail client. You can send attachments--binary files, images, sounds, anything--and you can send them in several encodings: uuencoding, binhex or MIME (Base 64). (Enccoding takes the binary file and "translates" it into blocks of text so it can be sent as Internet mail: see "Uuencoding for You", InfoNation, April 1996.) You can put together multiple address books and mailing lists, and you can create a list of several signatures that Pegasus will rotate through, in case your e-mail correspondents get tired of seeing the same Terry Pratchett quote at the bottom of every note.

Pegasus also supports "filtering rules": it will sort your incoming mail and do a variety of things with it. If you get a lot of mail from one place, a busy mailing list for example, Pegasus can filter that into one folder for you. You can tell Pegasus to mark mail from certain people as high priority--or you can filter mail from a pest right into the trash can. Many of these features such as filtering and uuencoded attachments are in Eudora, but only in the commercial Eudora Pro--in Pegasus they're free.

No matter what the mail software, everyone should spend a mail session to stop and think about exactly where their mail is at the moment. If you use elm or pine, all your mail is at your Internet provider. If you use Eudora or Pegasus, your mail is on your own computer. You can tell Eudora or Pegasus whether you want to delete the messages that you've already downloaded, or whether you want them to stay on the mail server. Consider the conveniences of reading your mail one way or another. Do you read all your mail in one place? Download all your mail into that computer and delete it from the server. Do you read your mail from several sites during the day? Leave your mail on the server, or dial up and use elm or pine to read it. If security is an issue, your mail won't be secure no matter where it is--try encryption software such as the PGP extension program for Pegasus.

Finally, remember that text is text, but word-processed documents with their fonts and clip-arts are not. Try to resist the temptation to type up all sorts of notes in Microsoft Word and mail them as attachments. If ASCII was good enough for the net-pioneers of the UNIX world, it's good enough for you.

For your own copy of Pegasus Mail or Eudora Light, you can go to their respective web pages:

Mail and elm are on most UNIX systems, as is pine. If you'd like to get your own copy of pine, you can get it at:

For deeper discussions of e-mail and client software, try one of the following newsgroups:


The PGP extension for Pegasus Mail can be gotten through:

David Harris, creator of Pegasus Mail, talks about e-mail etiquette at:


Charles A. Gimon teaches an Introduction to the PC class at the English Learning Center in south Minneapolis. He can be reached at


Back to my net writings.
Back to my home page.