Email systems I’ve known and loved (or at least tolerated)

My first email experiences were using CP/M based communication programs (written in 8080 assembler) such as MODEM7 and Mex to reach dial-up BBSs with hosted email systems, around 1980. Many BBSs allowed their users to exchange messages with other users of that BBS. They stored all messages on the BBS host; users viewed and edited messages while their own computers functioned as terminals. These systems didn’t reach beyond the BBS — users could email only other members of the same BBS.

My modem remained off-hook during message reading and editing, so phone bills shot through the roof if the BBS wasn’t within my local calling area. Another drawback was that each BBS program’s email program presented its own unique user interface.

MCI Mail

mci-mailWhen I signed up with MCI Mail in 1983, my email scope grew.  It presented a text-based interface to its terminal-based users.  MCI Mail included a gateway to the U.S. Postal Service, and MCI added more gateways later. I liked MCI Mail, except for its pricing. (Was it really a dollar per message? I forget.)  Its addresses were ten-digits (I think). I’d dial into their modem pool at 300 bps or reach them via Tymnet while my Northstar Horizon and its Hazeltine 1500 terminal worked as a dumb terminal.


Fidonet system architecture
FidoNet system architecture

In 1984, Tom Jennings and John Madill lashed up a dial-up network for BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems), called FidoNet. Each BBS would gather up a day’s outgoing messages, compress them, and upload them via dial-up modem to its upstream BBS. That BBS would decompress the incoming messages, distribute those messages that were destined for its users, add its outgoing messages to those it just received, compress all outgoing messages, and dial its upstream BBS so that it could upload its bundle of outgoing messages. This was all via automated dial-up connections, which were mostly attempted overnight. It was funky, but it worked.

Thanks to FidoNet, users of any FidoNet-connected BBS could exchange email with users of all other FidoNet-connected BBSs.  Eventually someone created a gateway to the Internet.

One reason for FidoNet mail’s success is that it separated the message transport function from the user agent function.  Users of CBBS systems could easily exchange messages with users of Searchlight BBS systems, across the globe. All FidoNet user agents allowed reading and replying to email while offline.

I used a FidoNet-based email frontend and backend called D’Bridge, which was written in Borland’s Turbo Pascal by Chris Irwin.  It was very slick, but I never saw it progress beyond the “work in progress” stage. D’Bridge allowed my PC to become a FidoNet node or point, so I could correspond with FidoNet BBS email users around the world for the cost of a local phone call.  Email reading and replying was done off-line, so phone costs remained low. (I met Chris — a bungee jumper and skydiver — once in Miami.  He told me that he’d bicycled to the South Miami post office to mail disks of his program and on his way home, his bike was stolen out from under him — as he was riding it!  Miami was frantic in the 1980s.)

AT&T Mail

Eventually AT&T introduced its AT&T Mail service. It was a warmed-over Unix-based mail system that was rushed to market when AT&T’s long-delayed packet-switched network failed to appear. It offered a uucp gateway and services similar to MCI Mail, but I preferred MCI Mail’s much friendlier user interface.

Western Union EasyLink

Western Union introduced its EasyLink service as a competitor to MCI Mail. It had an unfriendly user interface and a directory that was difficult to search, but offered gateways to most other public email systems. Around 1991, AT&T relabeled EasyLink as AT&T EasyLink. It remained clunky and expensive.

A major problem with most public email services was that users were billed by the minute while their modem remained connected.


About 1986, I installed Action Technologies’ MHS (Message Handling Service), a Novell Netware server based mail handling system with an open application programming interface.  Action Technologies’ own Coordinator email client was intriguing, but too structured for most users.  In 1988 we settled on Davinci eMAIL, a client-based system which used MHS for message transport between mail hosts.  It stored a user’s messages in either a private local database or a shared database on a server.  DaVinci eMAIL served us well for many years, first in text versions and later in Windows versions.

itlgA number of commercial and shareware gateways for MHS appeared. We eventually had MHS gateways to MCI Mail, AT&T Mail, fax, uucp, and SMTP.  For some reason, Novell was slow to update MHS, which left an opening.  A small Maryland based company named Infinite Technologies produced an MHS compatible “post office” with a feature superset.  It was called Connect2.  We replaced all MHS hosts with Connect2.

  • Sidenote: Infinite Technologies’ founders were Brett Warthen (a prolific coder) and John Madill.  John was one of the founders of FidoNet. Small World.  At least then it was.

MHS (and Connect2) connected organizations by transporting messages between disparate systems primarily using dial-up connections, but as the 1990s drew to a close, that role was acquired by products that employed SMTP (Simple Message Transport Protocol) on the public Internet.

Lotus Notes

About 1997, my employer’s new owner mandated deployment of Lotus Notes.  It was essentially a shared database with a quirky email-like user interface.  Most users preferred the intuitive DaVinci eMAIL user interface.

Microsoft Exchange

In 1996 Microsoft introduced its first release of Exchange.  It offered X.400 compatibility but no compatibility with MHS.  I didn’t think that it had a future.  I was wrong.


I use a variety of email systems. On my Android phone, I use the friendly email program that’s bundled with Android 4.2.2.  On PCs, I use Mozilla’s Thunderbird or Microsoft’s old Outlook Express.  I avoid Microsoft Outlook;  I just don’t like its user interface.  Occasionally I use Microsoft Office 365’s Webmail, with its horrible user interface.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695


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