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When Mercury went down
Life and times of an email nag
Stob Last month, Kiwi programmer David Harris officially threw in the towel. After 17 years, he announced he was ceasing development of Pegasus Mail, the famous, free-as-in-beer, email program.
(That Mr Harris subsequently retrieved the towel, now damp in patches and covered in other people's hairs, I will get around to in a moment. Stop hassling me already. You'll make me want another puff of Ventolin.)
Now Peg and I go back a long way. I remember the state of small company email in the early 1990s when it was creeping across faltering, coaxial-cabled LANs. Without Peg, it was a notably unsatisfactory creeper.
One early attempt from you-know-who was called 'MS Mail' and came bundled free with (I think) Windows for Workgroups. A test message from one MS Mail client to another on our teeny 10-PC LAN took five hours to arrive – and this with me poking and cajoling at both ends. To mitigate this sluggishness, one could buy an expensive "post office" server component. But as this server application ran only on OS/2, which at that stage Microsoft marketing people were denouncing as the OS equivalent of Polonium, one detected a lack of sincerity.
I remember we also experimented with Lotus's market-leading cc:Mail. The cc:Mail client was also notable for extreme slowness, and an innovative toolbar filled with many ugly, indecipherable picture-buttons called "SmartIcons" (because you smarted with fury while you looked for the ones meaning "Send" or "Reply", which weren't there). Although it only took about 15 minutes to send mail across the LAN, cc:Mail failed Verity's entry-level usability test for office email: even colleagues who had quarrelled badly, and couldn't look at each other, would mutter a few grudging words to each other rather than use it.
Then I found Pegasus Mail for Windows.
When run up, Peg instantly sniffed out the Netware network, and knew one's user id, and who one could write to. When it sent an email, that email arrived at the other end right now just as it should. An optional popup dialog prodded the recipient to read it even if the recipient didn't have Peg running (this sounds ghastly now, but was a must-have feature in the very early days when I was struggling to get my users to read their messages).
Furthermore, using a fragile combination of hand-woven batch files, a dodgy email header parser written in Turbo C, and a scary Pegasus for DOS config program (for some reason, the Windows client wouldn't do this bit), I discovered that I could yoke Pegasus into the SMTP part of our shiny-new-but-hideous-to-use Demon Internet KA9Q account. Suddenly, email was more than just a complex and unsatisfactory alternative to leaving a Post-It note on a colleague's VDU.
For all its slickness and efficiency, Peg never lacked the human touch. Its signature feature, the little horsey that lives in the corner of the screen and flaps its wings when you get an email, must have been a post-Windows 95 addition. But I think that even that first 16-bit Windows client had a more literal signature feature: the rather cutesy ability, invariably employed by David Harris himself, of appending a random quotation to the bottom of each outgoing message.
(Actually, I have rarely used this. The Pegasus pseudo-random number generator has a capricious streak, and delights in setting up awkward juxtapositions and inappropriate moods.)
Dear Ian, Further to our meeting this morning, I would like to record that I am extremely disappointed with my proposed pay rise. I look forward to discussing this matter on a more sensible basis in the very near future. Verity -- 'Masturbation? Don't knock it, it's sex with someone you love.' – Woody Allen, Annie Hall.
After I discovered and set up Peg at my workplace, I began proselytising Peg (and to a lesser extent its stable mate, a mail server called Mercury) to my friends. In the mid 1990s, I installed – in exchange for drinks or nominal sums – internet mail systems at about six or seven little companies.
Getting people to accept my labour and expertise more or less for free was a surprisingly uphill struggle. Some of my less cerebral pals were, astonishingly, not impressed when I pointed out that you could get a Peg add-on to enable you to play chess by email. I remember I eventually convinced a certain friend that he was being provincial only by pointing out that the very president of the United States now had his own email address, to which I, as a Pegasus user, could write whenever I chose:
To:email@example.com Dear Bill, Just a quick note to urge you, notwithstanding your current elevation, always to strive to be considerate to those around you. For example: regarding that nice young intern you were telling me about: why not splash out on a dress for her? Verity -- 'I am parshial to ladies if they are nice I suppose it is my nature. I am not quite a gentleman but you would hardly notice it but cant be helped anyhow.' – Daisy Ashford, The Young Visiteurs.
Those Pegimania years (as that period will be called when my History of Computing Studies course – a lightweight, modern alternative to the scholastically intense trio of History of Art, Computer Science and Media Studies – is rightfully accepted by academia) lasted right up until the early 21st century.
There were occasional setbacks. Peg for Mac wasn't much cop, so one gracefully gave way to rival Eudora when dealing with the Apple-afflicted; I lost the odd misguided punter to the vulgarity of Netscape's HTML-obsessed Messenger; occasionally a company allowed its BOFHish IT department to impose Notes on its unhappy users.
But none of this impacted on my Pegbase very much. It didn't occur to me that Outlook would get anywhere.
After all, I had tried it.
What I overlooked, of course, is that age-old question: what do they know of Outlook who only Outlook know? Seven years of receiving undecipherable binary e-turds called 'winmail.dat'; of hearing about problems caused by Outlook's susceptibility to malware, then hearing about much bigger problems caused by Outlook's hastily revamped security; of reading Microsoft blogs that are so assured that they can discuss the apparently-vexed issue of deleting Outlook folders without fear of getting the surely-deserved riposte "…or just use an emailer that works'"; these things have proved me wrong in shovels.
And so we reach this current pretty pass: where, after an extended period of sending out what amounted to begging emails to his users, David Harris decided to quit the game. Because I told you a partial fib back there. Pegasus Mail has never been quite free-as-in-beer; it always came with a small uuencoded attachment of moral blackmail.
Mr Harris's peculiar business model depended on the – frankly batty – idea that, once one had evaluated a product and invested the time learning how to use it, one would then feel the urge to buy a manual. Apart from anything else, Peg's help system is perfectly fine, notwithstanding pages of bad jokes and school-ma'am-ish instruction on netiquette, and of course Vista .hlp incompatibility that is about to stuff everyone. Mr Harris should long ago either gone shareware or open source and have done with it. To be fair, I think he now admits this error, so we both enjoy the precious gift of 20/20 hindsight.
Another difficulty with Peg is that the years of just-one-man development have taken their toll. I won't list Peg's defects here, lest a myriad of the Outlook faithful out there pause in their futile attempts to delete their folders and pelt me with jeering hate-Winmail.dats. However, I would like to apologise to fellow Peggers for the longstanding problem with the vertical scrollbar in the message filters listbox. I clicked on it too vigorously in about 1998 and it came off in my mouse.
David Harris now says that, following "an absolute avalanche of mail, phone calls, faxes" wanting him to continue, he is thinking about carrying on with Pegasus. I would like to send him a personal message, techie-to-techie, in case he happens to read this. Everybody else: this is private, so please stop reading now, and go back to your work, and I'll see you next time.
Dear Mr Harris You don't know me, but I am one of your longest-standing users and Pegasus's keenest evangelists. I write to urge you to ignore these siren voices encouraging you to carry on. The truth is, though you may not feel it, you have been working at Pegasus for too long. Give it up. Do something else to earn your money. By all means put Peg onto Sourceforge if you like. But don't try to keep control. Be proud and content, and please accept our thanks. It is always melancholy when you come to the end of something, but when you do, it is best to be brisk and get on with it. Let's do it together. Over the next few weeks, I will be closing down our old email system and moving it across to a new one. You have read the last words of an old Pegger; henceforth Thunderbird Is Go. Best wishes and good luck Verity -- 'Little Willie from his mirror licked the mercury right off / Thinking in his childish error it would cure the whooping cough / At his funeral his mother smartly said to Mrs Brown / "Twas a chilly day for Willie when the mercury went down."' – Anon