Email Programs of the 90’s

This is the decade where it all started! Well, that’s not completely true because emails were sent way before the 90’ies, but this is where it got out to the public. So today I will write about email programs from the 90’ies as I remember them. So how did it happen that I was sending emails […]

Published: 1/30/2017 by Bjarne Mess

This is the decade where it all started!

Well, that’s not completely true because emails were sent way before the 90’ies, but this is where it got out to the public. So today I will write about email programs from the 90’ies as I remember them.

So how did it happen that I was sending emails when most people at the time didn’t have a clue what email even was? Well, you can thank University of Copenhagen for that, data room A109. It also doesn’t hurt that I was so geeky that I actually liked being one of the only guys exploring this exciting new media that just appeared. It happened at the same time that I discovered html on Xmosaic – one of the first browsers –  on Unix, but that’s another story.

Looking back made me nostalgic for those bygone days, so I wanted to write about my favorite email programs from the 90’ies! And make no mistake, it was a big decade for email. In fact, in 1998 it was reported that for the first time more electronic mails were sent than regular (snail) mail.

One thing struck me when writing this post and it is this: though the emails from back then may not have been as pretty, with neat looking signatures and all that, the core usage is exactly the same. It brings a message from one person to another and that is basically the core of it. It is more smooth now, of course; you use a mouse instead of the keyboard or the screen of your smartphone, but that’s kinda obvious. The main purpose of use is basically the same. I will not preach about how emails have been turned into an important branding tool and marketing machine, though they have. No, the purpose of this post is simply to bring us a little bit back in time. And a note going forward: when I write UNIX, that also is meant to include LINUX, and now some of you might rip my head off!

I am only writing about email programs that I have used myself (both on Unix/Linux and Windows). Perhaps some of you old timers may have experience with other email programs from that defining decade. There were many other email programs available at the time, just as there are tons of email apps now. Even command line email clients, but I was never a great fan of them. But I’ll focus on the ones that I used to know and love (or hate). AND I will rate them with today’s eyes for their email signature capabilities – or lack of hereof…

Emacs on Unix

Emacs on Unix was first launched in 1976 so when I was using this basic text editor to draft emails in 1992, it was already 16 years old. With an interface that makes Windows MS-DOS look simple, Emacs on Unix was highly rated among email fanatics.

Emacs is in fact a text editor but highly customizable and could be used to send emails. This was quite clever. Imagine being able to use Notepad as an email client in today’s World.

Emacs for Windows still exists and is widely used (especially by IT nerds who effectively still live in the past). Here is a screenshot of GNU Emacs:

Emacs Email Signature capability:  None

Elm on Unix

Elm was a command line based email tool. The emails are shown as we see them today, with date, sender, and subject. One command was ‘m’ which would allow you to compose a new email, and a ‘d’ would mark it to be deleted.

Elm was of course 100% plain text-based. There was absolutely no email signature possibility unless you did some ascii art yourself.

Elm Email Signature capability:  None

Mutt – cross platform

Mut was very powerful and included pop3 and imap support (and even colors, if you had a color screen, that is).

Legend has it that when Michael Elkins developed Mutt, he gave the email editor the slogan, “All email programs suck, but this one sucks less.”

Development started in 1995 and it is still being developed and resides under the GNU project. Great product – more info on mutt.org.

Mutt Email Signature capability:  Possible! In fact, in later versions you can choose a signature randomly based on different criteria. Mutt is one of the more interesting email programs from a programmer’s view.

Pine

Released publicly by University of Washington in 1992 according to Wikipedia, with development stopping in 2005.  Pine was widely used in the university and research environment at that time, yet still provided a fast way of delivering messages.

pine-email-client

Pine Email Signature capability:  Yes! Plain text signatures can be edited and saved.

Alpine on Unix

Alpine is a successor to Pine and is offered by the University of Washington. I have used this only for a short period of time and found it to be much like ‘Pine.’

Alpine Email Signature capability:  Yes! Plain text signatures can be edited and saved.

And now to the more “modern” ones..

Lotus Notes

I have not really used Lotus Notes much, as I’ve always thought that the user interface is one of the worst in the history of user interfaces. It’s just terrible! I know there are many people, and especially Lotus Notes programmers (and I know a few (who have new jobs now (and they are not working with Notes))), who actually like Lotus Notes because the database and interface is oh so flexible, and you can do whatever you want. I do not! The fact is Notes is just more than an email program, but perhaps that’s its downside. Maybe Notes is a good example of why you shouldn’t mix it up too much. It was actually inspired by an earlier program called PLATO Notes, which was created in 1973.

In the early days of eMailSignature in 2003 and 2004, we actually supported Notes, but to be honest I never understood why people would use that. I guess it shines through that it was not my cup of tea.

Here is a screenshot of an early version (just to be unfair to the latest versions of Notes) so that you can see how ugly it looked. Terrible!

Outlook for Windows

I will not delve into the story of Outlook from Microsoft, but know that Outlook has been used since the early days, both by companies and as a consumer product due to its inclusion with Windows. Here is Outlook Express which came out in mid 90’ies.

Believe it or not, when Microsoft launched Office 95, there was not even a email program included! You simply had to use the built-in ‘inbox’ in Windows 95. See for yourself (to be fair, it was also 22 years ago!):

Email programs - Microsoft Office 95

Outlook 97 came out in November 1996 and offered the first real Outlook application, with reminders of how we know it today with Outlook 2016. The funny thing is the two programs are essentially the same and I believe that 90% of the time, I use exactly the same features now as I did back then. Shortly after cam Outlook 98 with the infamous ‘Clippy,’ your personal office assistant. Oh boy!

Outlook Email Signature capabilities: Plenty! In fact eMailSignature was the first email signature program that could control email signatures centrally from Outlook 97. At least some things we bring to the decades to come!

Other Email Programs

There were many other email programs of course, but as I said, I just wanted to run through the ones that I knew personally from the 90’s. ‘Not Much’ was also a nice email program, but I never really used it before Windows took over with its related email programs.

It has been immensely fun (and a privilege) to have watched email grow, mature, and evolve over time. And it fundamentally represents one of the most underutilized marketing and branding channels available to small and large businesses. Who would have believed that back then!

Credits: Some screenshots from Slackbook.org, mutt.org, others from myself.