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-- by Richard Castagna,Lynn Ginsburg and Cynthia Morgan
It's a typical Monday morning at WINDOWS Magazine. Editor Mike Elgan fires up his e-mail application to find more than 200 new messages vying for his immediate attention. Hours later he emerges from a flurry of forwards, replies and deletes-a little worse for wear but still breathing.
Mike is a case study in e-mail overload, and he's not alone. In 1994, 31 million people in the United States-at home and at work-were using e-mail. This year, the number is expected to more than double to 66 million, and by 2000, e-mail users will number 107 million. These users generated more than 812 billion messages in 1994, and this year they'll hit the Send button 2.7 trillion times. By 2000, that figure will explode to 6.9 trillion messages a year.
To say all this information can be overwhelming is like saying the Grand Canyon is one heck of a big hole in the ground. But before you replace your Send button with a Panic button, exit and log off, grab a cup of coffee and read on. We'll show you features in various e-mail applications that help you deal with the daily deluge and provide you with tips for using these features to their best advantage. We'll show you ways to squelch that exasperating spam, and help you learn to cope with the emotional aspects associated with e-mail overload. We'll even help you figure out how to open all those garbled attachments you get.
Vastly improved Internet e-mail client applications provide a host of sophisticated tools that help you manage your mail. We looked at some of the most popular Internet e-mail client applications, including BeyondMail Professional Internet Edition 3, Eudora Mail Pro 3.0, Microsoft Internet Mail and News, Netscape Mail, Pronto 97, QuickMail Pro 1.5 and Z-Mail Pro 6.1. We also looked at proprietary systems Microsoft Exchange Server 5.0 and Lotus cc:Mail Release 8.
Move Mountains of Mail
All these programs provide tools for dealing with excess volume and junk mail. Most offer filtering capabilities, which let you set up rules for automatically sorting incoming messages. For instance, you can automatically sort and route mail from your boss or clients to folders that will get your immediate attention. If you repeatedly receive unwanted mail from the same sender, or spam that contains unique words or text, you can set up specific filters to dump them into a "junk" folder. (See sidebar "Stop the Spread of Spam.")
With most programs, you can also relate actions to filtered items, such as sending an automatic reply, forwarding a message or playing a unique mail alert sound for a particular sender. You can take off on a business trip and set your e-mail program to respond to all-or certain-incoming messages with a reply that says you're out. Or, you can route messages from key customers to a co-worker.
Someone else's overstuffed mailbox can be as troublesome as your own. If you don't want your message buried in the recipient's inbox, use color-coded priority marking to tag it urgent. Or use your program's return-receipt feature to learn when the message has been opened or read.
If the mere sight of all that mail prompts a panic attack, Netscape Mail, which comes with Netscape Navigator 3.0, can help calm your nerves. In addition to letting you sort messages by Sender, Subject or Date, in ascending or descending order, the program lets you display only unread messages. Select Options/Show Only Unread Messages, and Netscape Mail culls unread messages from all the other mail in the folder. Even after you've read a message, a quick click on a menu pick will switch it back to "unread" status so it remains highlighted and doesn't get lost among your other messages.
What this version of Netscape Mail lacks, however, is any filtering capabilities. If you haven't kept your e-mail house in order, you may have a hard time finding things with the program's anemic search function. You can only search the message headers in a single folder at a time, so if you have lots of folders and a lost message, be prepared to spend a few minutes (or more) searching for it. And if you want to search through the text of your messages, set aside a lot of time, because you can search only one message at a time.
Netscape Messenger, the new version of Netscape Mail that comes with Netscape Communicator, remedies most of these filtering flaws. You can select Edit/Mail Filters to open a dialog where you can make all your filtering choices. And there are plenty of choices. The dialog box is arranged in a narrative "If ... then" manner. In the first part, you choose the item to examine, such as the sender, subject, message text, date, priority and so forth; then you select a condition (contains, doesn't contain, is, isn't, begins with or ends with). Finally, you indicate what to do with a message that meets the conditions; you can move it to a particular folder, delete it, mark it "read," change the priority or ignore the thread it's in. The choices are generous enough to set up effective filtering, and you can save and name filters and apply them later by selecting one from the same Mail Filters dialog box.
If returning from vacation causes you stress, you'll appreciate the auto-reply feature. BeyondMail Professional Internet Edition 3's auto-reply messaging feature shoots an e-mail back to senders saying you're out of the office. This can reduce numerous "Why haven't you responded to me?" messages, making the transition out of vacation mode more bearable. The package also comes with a set of file viewers for checking out attachments without opening them, which can spare you a lot of time-consuming application hopping. BeyondMail also offers a four-tiered address book that thoughtfully divides your global address list into more-manageable workgroup/intranet and outside groups, and an extensive filter-and-sort system.
Internet Mail and News, the mail client that comes with Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0, also offers an easygoing rules filter for incoming messages. But its message-handling and folder-manipulation tools are rudimentary, and it supports only POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3) and SMTP mail servers. A far better choice is IE4, which calls on the superior Microsoft Outlook Express for its mail chores. (See this month's Cover Story for more information on Outlook Express.)
Some say color can be a stress reliever. If so, then Eudora Mail Pro 3.0 can go a long way to allay e-mail anxiety. In addition to offering all the bells and whistles that expedite and enhance the e-mail process, Eudora now lets you group messages by assigning them color-coded labels. You can sort messages quickly by clicking on one of the column headers, such as name, date, priority or subject. Eudora Mail Pro's one weak point is its poor help system. But the program is so well designed, you won't need assistance often, anyway.
A capable search tool is another powerful weapon in the war on e-mail overload. This is one of Pronto 97's best features. If you have a badly neglected inbox with a year's worth of accumulated messages, Pronto's search will help you drill down to the information you need. Typically, e-mail search tools are limited to finding only text strings within messages. But Pronto 97 lets you search based on criteria such as a date or a date range, or within particular parts of the message header, such as the To: and From: fields.
For even more search power, check out Z-Mail Pro 6.1. Not only can you search by fields, you can apply Boolean logic to searches.
Sometimes, all you need to see are the first few lines of a message to know whether you can relegate it to the back burner for a while. A simple right click within QuickMail Pro 1.5 brings you the first few lines of a message without opening it (a feature you'll also find in Microsoft Exchange Server 5.0 and Lotus cc:Mail). Another cool feature is the QuickMail Ticker. Without opening the whole program, you can read the Ticker's scrolling display to see unread messages.
If your company is using a proprietary e-mail system, such as Microsoft Exchange Server or Lotus cc:Mail, your administrator is already doing a lot of filtering for you. But there are still things you can do to manage your mail.
In Microsoft Exchange Server 5.0, you can apply filters to display only those messages that have specific information in the subject line. The program's Inbox Assistant and Out of Office Assistant let you route messages to different folders or other recipients based on rules you apply to incoming mail. For instance, you can move all mail with a specific subject line into a special folder or forward all mail from a specific recipient to another address.
If a message thread is getting long and unruly, it may help to keep the entire thread in one place. Lotus cc:Mail Release 8 lets you group replies along with the original message.
There are some overload problems these packages just won't solve. That's where niche products come in. If you have multiple e-mail accounts, you have to check each one periodically for new messages. A product that solves this problem is E-mail Connection. You can access multiple network-based e-mail servers and online services from within the program, so you can schedule automatic downloads of all your messages at once. The program's Internet mail retrieval support is weak, though. It works with only a limited number of TCP/IP stacks (including Spry Air dialer, Softronic's SoftTerm TCP/IP and Quarterdeck's QWinsock 1.0). It doesn't work with Windows 95's Dial-Up Networking. Still, if you're juggling multiple accounts and network e-mail servers, E-mail Connection can be a lifesaver.
Another thing many e-mail packages have difficulty with is attachments. The Internet was designed to transfer messages made up of conventional text (ASCII) characters, rather than binary files. Most e-mail packages include some form of encryption technology to enable them to read attached files. The most popular are UUencode, XXencode, BinHex and MIME. These programs encode the nontransferable binary file into ASCII characters. The recipient can then decode the character strings to reassemble the original file. Most e-mail software can handle two or three forms of encryption. But if an attachment is encrypted using a method your e-mail package doesn't support, you may need a separate decryption program.
First, check with intended recipients to see which forms of encryption their software can handle. Microsoft Exchange, for instance, supports BinHex, UUencode and MIME. If you just don't know, try UUencoding (UU or UUE). It's simple, widely used and rarely troublesome. Most e-mail programs also support MIME. If you're sending attachments to a Mac user, you'll need software that supports BinHex files (HQX), such as Eudora Mail Pro, Microsoft Exchange or Pegasus. Or you can try separate programs, such as StuffIt, StuffIt Expander or BinHex13. To see which methods of encryption your e-mail package supports, check out your send options.
If you're still having trouble, try one of these utilities: WinZip, which also allows you to create and compress or decompress your own UUencoded files (http://www.winzip.com/download.cgi), UUDeview (http://www.miken.com/uud/) or WinCode (http://www.cyberspy.com/~rfsmith/softwar8.html). Other programs, such as DataViz's e-ttachment Opener and Conversions Plus, let you view and use a large variety of encoded or compressed files without opening the program that created them.
You can also reduce e-mail overload by maintaining multiple accounts and using different addresses for specific purposes. For instance, you may want to have separate accounts for business and personal correspondence. You'll find a number of free e-mail apps that will suit your needs, among them RocketMail, Hotmail and Juno. All provide fully functional Internet e-mail, and aside from shelling out some cash to hook up to and access the services, you won't pay a dime.
To set up an account with any of these services, go to their respective Web sites. At each site you can read about how the programs work and check out local access phone numbers. In the case of Juno (http://www.juno.com), you download the e-mail client software from the site. For RocketMail (http://www.rocketmail.com) and Hotmail (http://www.hotmail.com), if what you read at their sites intrigues you, stay right where you are. Not only do you sign up for these two on the Web, you use the sites as your e-mail programs, too. And you won't even need to download and install any plug-ins.
Mail in the Next Millennium
The software that drives e-mail communications will become increasingly sophisticated. Don't be satisfied with just knowing a few perfunctory menu commands in your e-mail software. Get under the hood and use some of the power features, such as filtering, searching and sorting. These capabilities can help make short shrift of the ever-increasing volume of electronic mail.
Now you can log back on to your e-mail service. You have messages waiting.
--Lynn Ginsburg is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo.
Windows Magazine, October 1997, page 243.