The notion of electronic mail is so new, and so difficult for the initiate to conceptualize, that some consultants and vendors have adopted a storybook approach, outlining a day in the life of a fictitious EM user to illustrate the process. Susan K. Kubany, president of Omnet Inc., a Boston-based company that helps set up and administer EM systems, has penned a scenario for prospective clients: the tale of Edgar Mills.

Edgar Mills is in charge of the Boston office of a nationwide brokerage firm. He sneaks out of bed at 6 a.m. past his sleeping wife, brews coffee in the kitchen, and plugs his portable phonewriter -- a keyboard and display unit the size of a briefcase -- into the wall near the kitchen table.

Edgar dials a local phone number and attaches the phone to his phonewriter. When the electronic mail system is activated, he types his name and password. The system tells him that three messages have arrived since he checked his "mailbox" at 7 p.m.

Two of the messages are from the vice-president in the Los Angeles office. The first answers Edgar's request for information about a new issue being handled from the L.A. office. Edgar reads the message and files it electronically.

The second message is a request sent to all vice-president/office managers asking their opinion of a medical insurance policy the L.A. vice-president has just heard about. Edgar comments on the insurance option. He also forwards the message to his assistant, asking: "Do you have any thoughts on this?"

The third message is an order from one of Edgar's few, but very special, customers to buy 500 shares of a certain stock. Edgar enters this message electronically in the customer's file and also forwards the message to the trading department, with instructions to fill the order.

Edgar is off to a day-long seminar, so he packs his lightweight phonewriter in the car. During the morning coffee break, he checks his messages again. There is one message, marked "private," from a broker in his office. Edgar needs a special, additional password to read this message. Even his assistant cannot read messages that are marked "private." The message reads: "Got a priblem I must discuss with you immediately. Please give me a call befroe lunch." (Many messages sent on electronic mail contain typos; it is generally understood that the message was composed directly by an executive. It is, of course, assumed that the message makes some sense.) Edgar makes the call immediately, and the problem is straightened out.

At the office, a broker receives a message from the New York office that a customer agreement form submitted the previous day is incomplete. The broker is asked for the missing information. Another broker sends a message to the company's research department requesting background on a specific stock. A third message is posted on the Brokers' (electronic mail) Bulletin Board for all brokers across the country. It concerns a corporate change in commission policy. Hundreds of other messages are sent and received through the day.

At the end of the day, Edgar goes home and checks for messages once again. There is a reminder to check the Stocks Bulletin Board for information about the total number of shares of stock the firm traded that day, as well as the Dow Jones closings. Edgar's assistant posted a message to all employees of the Boston office reminding them of the staff meeting the next afternoon. Edgar composes a message to one of his brokers and signs off the electronic mail service.

In the middle of the night, Edgar remembers an open order to buy that he forgot to place two days earlier. He jumps out of bed, turns on his phonewriter, composes the order in the form of a message to the trading department, and falls back to sleep.

Using EM, Edgar saved about $30 worth of his salary, plus secretarial, telephone, postage, and other expenses. The cost of EM is estimated at $3 for the day.