Reviews

Why you need a REAL e-mail program, by Bill Blinn

Author: Bill Blinn
Source: "Technology Corner" on Newsradio 610 WTVN, Columbus, Ohio

Sunday, May 28, 2000

Why you need a REAL e-mail program

There's been a lot of interest in e-mail programs the past few weeks, no doubt a result of the "I love you" worm. With the Toronto Globe and Mail referring to "Outlook" as "LookOut!" because of its vulnerability to attack, it may be that some users are looking for something a little more secure.

I'm no fan of either browser company's e-mail offerings. Both make it far too easy to send messages filled with HTML or rich-text junk that chokes e-mail based lists. These formatting tricks are fine if the person you're sending mail to has a program that understands them; they are not fine for mailing lists or for people who have e-mail programs that don't display all the "pretty" formatting.

By default, formatting options should be turned off, but both Netscape and Microsoft turn theirs on. As a result, users have to search through what seems like 14 layers of sub-menus to find out how to turn them off.

If you must use a browser's e-mail program, make it Netscape's. At least the security is better. But if you're looking for a real e-mail program, I have some to suggest.

For years I've recommended Qualcomm's Eudora, but recent versions of the program are so crash-prone and so sluggish that I can no longer do so. Thankfully, there are other programs that are very well suited to the task.

Several weeks ago, I told you about Calypso from MCS Dallas. There's a lot to like about this program and you'll find that information here, along with some information about why I feel that Eudora should be used with caution.

Another e-mail program that has a lot of supporters is Pegasus, a free program. Pegasus is a very powerful program, but I've always found its interface to be more than a little confusing.

This Bat flies!

Now I've rediscovered The Bat, and I can strongly recommend it.

Several years ago, I looked at this e-mail program from Moldava (or Moldavia, depending on the transliteration system you use). I could see the promise of things to come and gave The Bat an acceptable, though hardly glowing, review. Many of those promises have now been fulfilled and The Bat is probably the best combination of ease-of-use and power that I've seen.

Pegasus, for example, is powerful but hard to use. Eudora is powerful, but has become a resource hog and buggy to boot. Calypso is easy to use, but lacks a few features I consider important. And I've already said that I consider Netscape and Microsoft e-mail clients to be largely useless.

If you're looking for an e-mail program that can easily work with any number of e-mail accounts (POP or IMAP) and can be customized to work the way you want it to, take a look at The Bat. It doesn't hurt that this is the fastest e-mail program I've ever seen or that the program takes less than 4MB.

If you need to send the same message periodically, you'll love The Bat's "Quick Templates". Once you've defined the template text, you type a text identifier ("usetags" for example) and press Ctrl-Spacebar. The Bat finds the text associated with "usetags" (that could be 10 words or 10,000) and fills it in. People who need to answer routine questions can use of this handy function to reduce the amount of text they type.

The Bat also offers an old-time functionality called "cookies". Not the cookies that are associated with browsers, but sayings and aphorisms that you can append to your messages. Create a cookie file and tell The Bat to append a random cookie to your messages. That's all you need to do to change your sig line with every message.

Granted that's a cosmetic thing, but one that people who have my sense of humor will appreciate. On a more practical plane, consider The Bat's powerful sort and filter options. You can tell the program to move, delete, or mark messages based on information in the header or within the body text. Filtering is available in most e-mail programs these days, but The Bat's is among the most powerful I've seen.

And I have to say that I'm amazed by The Bat's speed. I can't explain how it's done, but the program can check a dozen e-mail accounts in just a few seconds. I suspect that it's done with multi-threading, something that other programs claim to do, but apparently don't do as well as The Bat. When I have The Bat check my 6 primary e-mail accounts, the process takes less than 2 seconds if there's no new mail. There is no other e-mail program that's this fast. Period.

If there is new mail, The Bat can display a "MailTicker". As the name implies, it's a ticker-tape like display that pops up over other programs. You can set it to pop up only when you get an urgent message or, if you think it gets in the way, you can disable it."

If you're converting to The Bat from another e-mail program, the process is reasonably painless. The process is automatic for conversion of messages and addresses from Eudora, Pegasus, Outlook and Outlook Express through version 4, and Netscape through version 4. For other programs, you may have to be creative. Moving messages from Calypso, for example, requires exporting the message to what Calypso calls an "archive". The archive is simply a Unix-format mail file, which The Bat can import. You still have to select messages and move them into the various accounts and directories within The Bat, but this process doesn't take a lot of time.

Programmer Stefan Tanurkov recognizes that the program has a few shortcomings and is working to fix them in the next release. He wisely won't promise a delivery date, but it sounds like version 2 will be released sometime this year. He also says (I think in jest) that he's working to make the program even smaller!

Those who use The Bat on more than one machine will wish for an easier way to clone the set-up. To set up The Bat on a desktop machine and then to clone it on a notebook system requires that you copy the mail files from the desktop system to the notebook system and then go through the first step of creating each e-mail account on the laptop. Once you tell The Bat where the account information is, it finds the information it needs about servers, user IDs, passwords, and such. Says Tanurkov, "We are thinking about simplification of this procedure."

The primary shortcoming, though, is not with the program. It is with the documentation, or lack of it. The on-line assistance is typical of what programmers write. As Tanurkov says, "Actually, you should know what programmers are when it comes to writing documentation ." Programmers rarely write complete documentation because they feel that some the operation of some functions is obvious and because they'd rather write code to improve the program than to write documentation describing the program. Anyone who has used an e-mail program previously won't have any trouble with The Bat's basics, but may miss out on some of the programs's really nice features.

For example, I defined my e-mail accounts in a haphazard manner with the assumption that I could drag and drop them into
another order when I was finished. When I tried, the accounts wouldn't budge. They stayed in the same order I'd defined them. But then I found some information in the "How do I" section of the program's Web site about using the Alt key to drag addresses. When I tried an Alt-drag with the accounts, they moved.

Perfect! This keeps the user from accidentally dragging an account out of place. It was intentional and is an elegantly simple solution to an annoying problem. But it wasn't well documented and I could have thought that the program was missing an important feature.

I mentioned the Web site earlier. The site features a small FAQ, a "How do I ...?" section, and a discussion group
(complete with on-line archives). When you need to know how to do something, there's a good chance you'll find the information on the site. If not, asking a question will usually yield the answer. If all else fails, the programmers themselves will come to your rescue -- which is something you don't get with a large corporation.

For users who are security conscious, the program offers built-in PGP encryption. It also reads and can send "vcf" address card attachments, an increasingly common standard for sharing contact information. Should a new correspondent send you a vcf attachment, a single-click operation adds all the new information to the address book."

It is not surprising that an e-mail program does these things. What is surprising is that an e-mail program does all these things and is still responsive, even on a slow machine.

The Bat is simply an exceptional piece of work. It's a shareware product, so you get to try it for 30 days before you have to spend any money on it. With this program, that's a very good bet by the programmers; I suspect that most people find The Bat's speed and power to be too much to give up at the end of the evaluation period.

As for how Stefan Tanurkov and Max Masutin have managed to pack so much power and flexibility into a program that's approximately 4MB in size is more than just a mystery. As far as I'm concerned, it's magic.

By the way, thanks to The Internet Tour Bus (http://www.tourbus.com/) for reminding me of The Bat. I'm glad that I've taken another look at it. At the rate The Bat is progressing, I can't wait to see what Tanurkov and Masutin will have created a year from now!

For more information, see http://www.ritlabs.com/.

If you examine the list of e-mail clients at Tucows (http://www.tucows.com/) you'll find nearly 30 programs that range in price from free to $100. If you're worried about your e-mail program's security, give one of these other programs a try.
Buy | Download | Overview | Features | Interface | Awards | Reviews | Plugins | License