Electronic mail is an idea whose time has come -- sort of

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Once in the not-too-distant past, when computers were first coming into their own, people dreamed of the paperless office: a wonderful, tidy room lit by the cheery glow of a computer screen. Memos and mail would come and go electronically -- sent, received, sorted, and filed by computers -- and we would be free of the blizzard of paper that has plagued us since the industrial revolution.

Today, electronic mail conveys less than 2% of all business correspondence, but it is developing rapidly, the beneficiary of advances in computer communications and artificial intelligence. Whether your company is ready for electronic mail depends on how your computers are set up and on how your employees currently use them.

In electronic mail, or e-mail, messages are composed, sent, and usually read on computer screens. The messages may travel within an organization (internal e-mail, analogous to interoffice mail) or over a network available to anyone who pays a subscription fee (public e-mail, analogous to a carrier such as the U.S. Postal Service or United Parcel Service). Messages travel through cables.

In an internal system, the cables link several computers, each with a built-in or accessory interface circuit, to form a local area network (LAN). Several LANs -- in the same neighborhood or across a continent -- can be connected together by hardware-plus-software bridges. For storing and forwarding messages, some internal e-mail systems rely on a host computer, often a large one such as a Digital Equipment VAX or an IBM mainframe.

Public e-mail connections are made through the telephone system. The computers connect to the phone system by means of modems, devices that convert computer information into audio tones able to travel over telephone wires. Several dozen public e-mail systems are available; the largest include Telemail, EasyLink, CompuServe, and MCI Mail. Sending a one-page public e-mail message typically costs 50¢ or less; a 10-page message might run around $2.

No electronic mail system can completely replace paper mail. After all, you can't send color brochures or product samples electronically. And some e-mail messages wind up being printed by the recipient; long documents, for example, are too tedious to read off a computer screen. But sending documents electronically is faster and less expensive than overnight express couriers, and for ordinary office memos and letters, e-mail really can reduce paper consumption. E-mail messages can successfully take the place of many routine phone calls, and because people can receive complete e-mail messages whenever they are working at their computers, a lot of telephone tag disappears. Computer files can also be sent via most e-mail systems, so you can transmit a spreadsheet or a business plan to an associate, who can then load it into his or her own computer for modification. E-mail is particularly effective for communications between home and branch offices because messages do not need to make a mail-pouch departure time. Someone in a branch office can use a computer and modem to call up a computer that is on the home office's network and exchange messages with everyone on that network.

These advantages may come at a significant cost, however. If your computers are not now linked in a LAN, you will have to install one. You should first consider the cost of cabling all the computers together, a difficult and expensive process in some older buildings but usually fairly easy in newer ones. You also need to figure in the cost of the hardware and software to support the network itself: from about $250 to $800 per computer, depending on the type of network. If your company has multiple LANs -- typically in separate departments or buildings -- they can be linked together for e-mail if they are of the same type. E-mail is not always possible between LANs of different types; right now it is even difficult to send e-mail between networks of IBM PCs and of Macintoshes, although suppliers of internal e-mail software promise a solution by 1989. After the computer network is set up, the cost of sending an internal e-mail message is very low: a fraction of a cent per message.

Once installed, will an e-mail system be used? If your people are already working with computers a great deal, they will undoubtedly embrace e-mail with enthusiasm. If they use computers only sporadically, a concerted management effort will be required to get everyone started: managers must not only use e-mail themselves but should also make a point of distributing certain important information only electronically. Special provision will have to be made for employees who do not have computers on their desks, either by setting up a central computer they can check periodically for messages or by printing their messages on paper. E-mail is like photocopying: once people get used to it, they won't be able to work without it. But a critical mass of e-mail messages is needed to drive the system. If your company cannot reach this critical mass now, you're better off waiting until it can, rather than installing an expensive system and watching it languish from disuse.

Internal systems
Many software packages are now available for managing internal electronic mail. Nearly every product can edit, send, and receive messages and attach computer files to the messages. Most let you send mail to one person or a group or broadcast to everyone on the system. The most important differences concern compatibility with network configurations and ability to handle bridges to multiple networks, host e-mail systems, and public e-mail systems.

Today's local area networks usually consist entirely of IBM PCs and compatibles (Novell and 3Com are leaders in these networking systems) or entirely of Apple Macintoshes (Apple Computer's AppleTalk is the leader). Although it is possible to combine IBM PCs and Macs on the same network, most e-mail software is restricted to either PCs or Macs. The two exceptions are InBox and 3+Mail. InBox can connect PCs and Macs if they are linked via AppleTalk but not if they are linked via 3Com or Novell systems. (Another version, InBox/PC, does work on common IBM PC networks, including 3Com and Novell, but it cannot communicate with InBox for AppleTalk.) You can use 3+Mail to manage mail among Macs and IBM PCs in 3Com networks.

Public systems
Subscribing to a public system is much simpler than setting up internal e-mail. You need add only communication hardware and software to a microcomputer and decide which public service to sign up for. In companies without internal e-mail systems, one person usually relays all the messages to and from the public system, printing incoming messages for the recipients. For those with internal e-mail, software is starting to appear that links internal networks to some public systems -- a network gateway is programmed to exchange messages with the public system -- so that everyone on internal e-mail also has access to public e-mail.

For example, in combination with the add-on product 3+Reach/MCI, 3+Mail can link an internal system with MCI Mail. For small IBM PC networks, cc:Mail works well, offering gateways to Telemail and EasyLink as well as to host-computer systems such as IBM PROFS (Professional Office System), for IBM mainframe computers, and DEC VAXmail. For the Macintosh, the program QuickMail comes with several gateways, and the experienced user can create new ones.

Most subscribers to public e-mail have relied on standard communications software, general-purpose programs that usually require some experience with computers and modems. When you use these programs to call up a public e-mail service, you have to cope with the service's user interface, which is designed for the lowest common denominator, a Teletype terminal designed a quarter of a century ago, rather than a modern microcomputer. You could learn to use this interface, but don't waste the time. Instead, get modern communications software, with a modern interface, designed to handle your interaction with the e-mail service. Desktop Express, for example, manages MCI Mail on a Macintosh, and Lotus Express does it on an IBM PC.

Which public system should you subscribe to? The biggest single problem in public e-mail is that the various services generally cannot talk to one another. Most are islands, like the many independent telephone companies operating at the turn of the century; subscribers to one phone company could not call subscribers to another company. A few public e-mail services do allow limited interchange: you can send messages to telex machines from most of them, and CompuServe and MCI Mail subscribers can send messages to one another. In making your choice, therefore, you should consider which system is used by the majority of the people with whom you need to communicate. Then be sure to let your correspondents know which service you are using; your e-mail address should be as integral a part of your letterhead and business cards as your company's phone number.

Part of the reason that few e-mail services communicate with one another is that electronic mail, unlike paper mail, has no universal addressing system. The address of your office is used by Federal Express, the postal service, and every other delivery service, but if you subscribe to three electronic mail services, you will have three completely different e-mail addresses. Making life even more difficult, most public e-mail systems do not publish a directory of their subscribers. If you subscribe to MCI Mail, you can ask for the address of another MCI Mail subscriber, but you cannot look up the address of a CompuServe subscriber. A new international standard for e-mail addresses and directories, called X.500, is under development, but its acceptance will take some time, and for it to be effective, all public e-mail services will have to follow it.

Because of these inconveniences, and because most people are not yet on any e-mail system, some electronic messages sent via public services reach their final destination by telex or facsimile. E-mail can also arrive as paper mail. The service transmits your message electronically to the recipient's city, prints it, and then delivers it by courier or first-class mail.

An obvious advantage of electronic mail over regular mail is speed. But although public systems can send a message in seconds, the recipient knows that a message is waiting only when he or she dials up the service. If the recipient calls only once a week, he or she might not get your message until seven days after you sent it. To alleviate this problem, you can tell the recipient by phone that you have sent some e-mail (or leave a message that you have left a message . . .). Many e-mail systems provide return receipts to let you know when your message was received.

Managing e-mail
Since all electronic mail requires a computer to send and receive messages, that same computer can sort and file these messages automatically. Electronic filing is easier and more flexible than maintaining a paper file, particularly since the same message can be filed under several categories at once. The most effective e-mail filing program is Lotus Agenda, which can sort messages by date, by sender, and by any names contained in the message. You can also identify any part of a message as important and retrieve it by those words, and you can create synonyms. Thus, you could equate the terms safety, safety officer Jane Smith, OSHA, and Jane Smith and retrieve all related messages with a single command. Agenda works so well on e-mail messages that its fans complain that they wish it could file their paper mail as well.

General indexing programs, such as ZyIndex, and text-retrieval programs, such as GOfer, can help you find particular e-mail messages because they can find any word or combination of words in any text. For instance, these programs allow you to retrieve all messages containing the word safety within 50 words of chemical.

Can a computer manage the purpose of your mail in addition to its contents? Coordinator is a package that not only enables you to send and receive e-mail, but also tries to impose a structure for the messages. For example, rather than scheduling a meeting for 2:00 p.m. Wednesday, Coordinator has you "declare a time commitment." Instead of a general thank-you at the end of an electronic meeting, Coordinator's manual recommends the command "declare this conversation complete" to "close off the possibility of performing any further cogent moves in the conversation' -- the e-mail equivalent of slamming down the phone. These rigid concepts might work in highly structured organizations with sharply defined lines of authority, but others will find the language a little strange. A new version of Coordinator is supposed to soften the iron fist.

Ironically, the fastest-growing form of electronic mail, facsimile, is adding to the paper blizzard. An upcoming column will show why.

Cary Lu is technology editor of Inc.


Where to get more information

If you want to find out more about e-mail software, try the following sources:

cc:Mail LAN Package 3.0: cc:Mail Inc., 480 California Ave., Palo Alto CA 94306; (415) 321-0430. $695.

The Coordinator:
Action Technologies Inc., 2200 Powell St., 11th Floor, Emeryville CA 94608; (415) 654-4444. $995.

Desktop Express:
Dow Jones Software, PO Box 300, Princeton NJ 08543; (609) 520-4641. $149.

Microlytics Inc., 1 Tobey Village Office Park, Pittsford NY 14534; (716) 248-9150. $79.95.

Symantec Corp., 10201 Torre Ave., Cupertino CA

95014; (408) 253-9600. $195 to $599.

Lotus Express for MCI Mail, Lotus Agenda:
Lotus Development Corp., 55 Cambridge Pkwy., Cambridge MA 02142; (617) 577-8500. $100 and $395.

CE Software, 1854 Fuller Rd., West Des Moines IA 50265; (515) 224-1195. $300.

3Com Corp., 3165 Kifer Rd., Santa Clara CA 95052; (408) 562-6400. $595.

ZyLab Corp., 3105-T North Wilke Rd., Arlington Heights IL 60004; (312) 632-1100. $95 to $695. n