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HARDWARE

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Inc. magazine's executive editor shares with readers his thoughts on E-mail and how it can be improved.
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Techniques: Road Warrior

Why can't our E-mail just follow in our footsteps?

The Omni Hotel at Charleston Place is a lovely spot with delightful amenities, wonderful service, and--get this--data jacks that actually work. But much as I appreciate the finer hotel rooms in life, I had a hankering to get outside and take in some of the historic sites in Charleston, S.C. My plan was to slip outside before the conference I was attending began and head down Market Street toward the Cooper River. Along the way, I could stop and visit Rose Marie Manigault, famous for her woven sweet-grass baskets, and Virginia Smalls, notorious for her homemade hot sauces and tangy Vidalia-onion salsas.

But first I had to check my E-mail. I'd been on the road for a spell and hadn't been still long enough to download my messages until I set myself up in Room 278 that afternoon. I started with my E-mail from work. I called in to the server in Boston, downloaded the messages waiting for me, tapped in my responses, and dialed back up to send them. "One down, five to go," I sighed, flashing on my myriad E-mail accounts. Then I started the process all over again for provider number two. By the time my E-mail business was complete, an hour had passed and it was time to get ready for the first session of the conference. (I would have bagged the session, but I was to give the welcoming comments and introduce the keynote speaker. Ducking out would have only led to more E-mail flying at me.)

For us road warriors, the scenario is an all too common one. Multiple E-mail accounts, it seems, have taken the place of actor Tony Roberts's multiple phone numbers in Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam. First we had our internal E-mail, through which we could send messages to our colleagues rather than pick up the phone, pop in next door, or turn our head to the right and whisper to the office mate sitting beside us. Next came E-mail to people outside the organization. For some of us that meant signing up with an Internet service provider (ISP) while waiting for our company's Internet E-mail to become Internet-ready. Then along came the commercial on-line services like America Online, Prodigy, and CompuServe, which we originally subscribed to because we thought they might improve our kids' lives, our lives, and, well, because we could. In time, those services gave us yet another E-mail address. Meanwhile, our company's internal E-mail was finally rigged to send and receive missives over the Internet, and our work address became our destination of choice because it was live all day, and we could dial up from far afield to retrieve messages from business contacts and colleagues back at the office who no doubt noticed that we were on the road now and out of shouting distance. To top things off, free advertising-supported E-mail like Juno and Web-based Hotmail hit the lines, and we signed up because it was, well, free.

Face it: we're E-mail pigs.

But with our piggishness comes a price: when we're on the road, it can take as many as 10 phone calls just to retrieve and send our E-mail. It shouldn't have to be that way. We should be able to forward all our E-mail from one account to another so that we have to make only one phone call to retrieve our messages while we're on the road. If our internal E-mail is the primary account we rely on, then all the other services we've signed up for should have a forwarding option. Currently, few do.

Among them, ironically, are some of the earliest ISPs--services that operate Unix-based systems (mine is Software Tool & Die). To have your E-mail forwarded to the address of your choice, these services simply ask you to type in a rudimentary command (echo new-address@newplace.com >.forward). That's it. Your computer doesn't need to be on for the forwarding to occur. And you even have the option of forwarding the E-mail while keeping a copy in the Unix-based ISP (echo oldname, newaddress@newplace.com >.forward).

Sure, as Sarah Schafer pointed out in " E-mail Grows Up" ( Inc. Technology, 1997, No. 1), many E-mail software packages have forwarding features. But let's face it: it's not our internal E-mail that's the problem. Generally, that's where we want all our other E-mail forwarded to when we're on the road because it provides us with the most direct link to our colleagues. So the fact that we can program our internal E-mail to forward incoming messages to one of our other addresses isn't terribly useful when we need to get a critical file from someone back in the office.

Now, obviously the on-line services and the advertising-supported free-software services want us to spend time on-line so we'll see the advertising and buy the stuff that's on sale. To keep us there, AOL, for one, has tried to address the forwarding problem with its E-mail "grabber," which is now in beta testing. True, the grabber lets AOL members using Microsoft's Outlook software retrieve messages from all other E-mail providers. But it doesn't let them forward their incoming AOL mail to a primary account. According to a spokesperson for the company, AOL has no plans to offer a forwarding feature at this juncture. ("Right now, AOL does not offer it with the E-mail service, but they are working on it" is all an AOL spokesperson who refused to be quoted would tell me.) For an on-line service that sends a message to users whenever they've been logged on for 46 minutes asking if they really want to be on-line, you'd think a forwarding feature would be a natural. (I won't even comment on how a forwarding feature would have helped solve AOL's perpetual busy-signal problem.)

The lack of automatic forwarding on free E-mail services like Juno and Hotmail, on the other hand, is understandable. The reason these services are free, after all, is that they promise advertisers they'll expose users to the advertising plastered on their pages. But you'd think that creating text-based versions of the advertisements that can travel as tags on the E-mail messages would not only be possible but would also give the advertisers another shot at reaching users. Wouldn't a bit of commercialism on our incoming E-mail be a small price to pay for the convenience of having all our messages reach us at one address?

I'm working on an even simpler solution. In Aristophanes's play Lysistrata, the female characters, tired of their husbands being away at war, decide that the only way to get their men back is to withhold sex from them until they refuse to fight. Borrowing this method (metaphorically speaking, of course; it's not like we're having sex with our E-mail providers now, is it?), we could cancel all our E-mail addresses except for the primary address we use for business. That should bring the services to their knees.

Then again, maybe we should keep one for business and one for personal E-mail. Or perhaps one for business, one for personal use, and one for that second business that a sizable number of us are operating on the side. Oh, but we really like some of those on-line magazines that our on-line service provides, so, OK, we'll keep that E-mail address, too. And, what the hell, let's keep the free E-mail services as well because, well, they're free. (See "we're E-mail pigs" observation, above.)

No, that's just plain madness. It won't do. Just say no. If you're going to have multiple E-mail accounts, keep only those that allow for forwarding. Cancel or stop using those that don't. Let your electronic mail providers know that unless they wise up and provide you with what should be a standard service, you're just not interested in them anymore.

You may have to reply to correspondents with a blanket change of E-mail address for the next several weeks. You may find it hard going cold turkey. But you're a road warrior. Be strong.

Jeffrey L. Seglin is an executive editor at Inc. magazine. His E-mail addresses are jeff.seglin@inc.com, jls@world.std.com, IncSeglin@aol.com, jseglin@juno.com, jseglin@hotmail.com, and jseglin@post.harvard.edu. For now.

Last updated: Sep 15, 1997




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