A while back, I got a copy of a disk called The Electronic Mailbag from eBay. The purpose of the software was to help the user get used to the idea of electronic mail and how checking/sending messages, printing, mass emails, and searching worked. A way to practice without the hazards inherent in using actual electronic mail.
I thought “that sounds comical,” and wound up with the disks. Something to archive, as far as I know this is essentially its first appearance on the internet. According to the label and the screens within, it was produced in 1985 by a company called Exsys.
It isn’t really comical, though, it is pretty straightforward. If there was a manual, I don’t have it, and it doesn’t provide any amusing speculations about the future of email. It’s really just a program that mocks up an email interface and allows you to exchange messages with other people who have an account on the data disk. What was actually quite a bit more interesting was preparing this for use in an emulator. Though it is still kind of interesting that a product like this existed, from back when email was fairly new and relatively uncommon. These were the days when even BITNET was new, email was mostly for CompuServe and BBS users.
Here, I’ll just walk through the program. In a later post, I’ll discuss the lengths I went to to bring you the disk image. First the disk images, there is a program disk and a data disk. The data disk is a normal DOS 3.3 disk, and the program disk has to be used in this nibble format because I have not fully deprotected it, only got it to work with the nibble copy. The program disk must be write protected (which I note is not in the instructions anywhere, and the original disk is not write protected—nevertheless, it will refuse to recognize the program disk as original during a requested disk swap if it is able to modify the disk). In Virtual II on the Mac, write protecting a disk can be accomplished by “locking” the file (Get Info on the file in the Finder, check the “locked” checkbox).
- Exsys – Electronic Mailbag. Program disk. Nibble image, must be write protected.
- Exsys – Electronic Mailbag. Data disk.
When you start it up, you can either start the program, or go to the utilities. Let’s start with the program. There are three “levels” that the program can be run at, set within the utilities (basic, intermediate, and advanced). We will start at the intermediate level. At the basic and intermediate level, you have graphical menus.
The first step in any email-related experience is to log in. You log in by entering a last name and a first name, and if you don’t yet have an account, entering “NEW” (otherwise, entering your password).
Once we have established who we are, we are presented with the main menu. The options are to read mail, send mail, get a list of users, and exit. We have no mail waiting.
You are not allowed to send email to yourself, it seems, so I used another user account that was already on the disk and sent mail to myself. Here is what it looks like. There is no word-wrap, so if you type up to the end of the line, it will just beep at you. When you are ready to send or you realize you have made a mistake, you press Esc and you are presented with a basic line editor, where you can edit or delete a line, start over, or send.
Now, when we are back at the main menu, we have mail! Which we can read. (I obscured the name of the other account on the disk, but it doesn’t matter. There are no messages saved, and so certainly none that might compromise any future political careers.)
That’s basically it. Though, once you’ve mastered intermediate email, you can move on to the advanced level. This is accomplished by rebooting the disk and going into the utilities menu, and selecting the advanced level. Also in the utilities is the ability to send a “form letter” to all users.
The “advanced” version is non-graphical, simulating what you would experience over a modem in 80-column mode. When you log in, it helpfully tells you “Connection established” on “Port 14.” The options are mostly the same, though the ability to send messages to multiple recipients is now available, as is a user list search.
And that’s about it. I decided not to take screenshots of every single thing you can do with the utility program, but it allows you to catalog the data disk, read messages, look up passwords, set the interface level. As far as I can tell, the main difference between “basic” and “intermediate” levels is that at the basic level you don’t have the text editing options in the graphical interface, you can just send or start over.
The description of this program has already gotten so long that I won’t detail here how I got it into a usable nibble format, but I will post that soon, since it is interesting in its own right—actually quite a bit more interesting than it is to have preserved the program.