by Mark H. Anbinder, News Editor <email@example.com>
One of the frequently asked questions in electronic forums devoted either to FirstClass or Newton devices - "Is there a FirstClass client for Newton users?" - finally has an affirmative answer. Black Labs, Inc. recently shipped FirstClass Retriever, which allows MessagePad users to send and receive mail messages with servers running SoftArc's FirstClass communications software.
As NewtonMail users have discovered, the Newton handwriting recognition technology is hardly designed for writing long messages (I won't try to claim I'm writing this article on my MessagePad 110, improved though its recognition is). Writing short messages is not a problem, though, and of course the MessagePad is perfect for quickly scanning a mailbox and reading a few messages.
Busy MessagePad owners who like to stay organized and in touch wherever they happen to be will find this software invaluable. (If getting at your email was the only remaining reason to carry both MessagePad and PowerBook wherever you went, you can now leave the PowerBook on your desk more often.) Macintosh network administrators in particular will appreciate the ability to scan their mailboxes for important notes at any time.
The $69 product uses a Newton-compatible modem to connect to a FirstClass server using its command-line user interface (CLUI) feature. In other words, it pretends to be a user connecting via terminal software. This means Retriever cannot create or display text styles such as fonts and sizes; all text will appear in the default font, size, and style. It also means that Retriever works only with FirstClass servers with the CLUI option installed. (If your FirstClass server supports DOS users and other VT100 callers, the CLUI option is installed.)
Two different modes, "Connect" and "Xchange," give Retriever users the choice of logging in, conducting their reading and writing tasks while online, and logging out; or automatically exchanging waiting messages, sending newly-written messages and retrieving messages in the mailbox during a brief toll-saving connection. The Xchange mode user can then read the incoming messages at his or her leisure while not connected, as well as compose new messages or replies.
Ironically, FirstClass Retriever is the only commercial FirstClass client software to provide offline message reading and composing. SoftArc's own client software offers these functions only while connected to a server, and although the company has long promised a version with offline messaging, it has yet to materialize. A Mac shareware utility called BulkRate provides offline mail and conference messaging for FirstClass users; it also uses the CLUI, and has similar drawbacks when it comes to styled text. BulkRate is particularly unsuited to posting followup messages in conferences, because it breaks the threads that link FirstClass conference messages. (Usually, the user can follow a thread of discussion from one reply to the next, as Usenet users are accustomed to; BulkRate replies fall outside the thread.)
Although users of business-oriented FirstClass servers probably stick to one server at a time, administrators of these systems and hobbyist FirstClass users tend to hop from one FirstClass system to another. (If nothing else, FirstClass system administrators typically visit SoftArc Online, the company's support BBS, from time to time.) These users will be pleased with the multi-server approach Black Labs took in designing Retriever. The software can keep track of several FirstClass systems, and it knows which system each outgoing message needs to reach. A quick series of Xchange sequences during your breakfast, one for each system on which you have a mailbox, and you're ready to face your bus or train ride with a Newton full of mail to be read. (Note that potholes have an adverse effect on the MessagePad's handwriting recognition, if you plan to write replies as well.)
Retriever sports an interface that cleanly melds the look and feel of SoftArc's FirstClass client software with a familiar Newton approach. Tiny flags indicating unread incoming mail or unsent outgoing mail will be familiar features, and the software offers a pop-up folder menu providing access to current, saved, and unsent mail. A series of buttons at the bottom of the screen include a Connect/Hangup button, an Info button (which shows the FirstClass message history), and New and Delete commands.
FirstClass Retriever has been tested with an original MessagePad, MessagePad 100, and MessagePad 110. It works with Apple's external Newton modem and PCMCIA modem card, and the Megahertz and DataRace 14.4 Kbps PCMCIA modem cards. Black Labs recommends using Apple's PCMCIA modem, which offers 2400 bps data and 9600 bps fax capability. The company says the faster PCMCIA modems don't actually provide anywhere near the expected six to one speed increase because of widely reported serial communication limitations in the MessagePad hardware, and will shorten battery life on the MessagePad and MessagePad 100. Black Labs has had limited success with third-party external modems; they say that, in their experience, most such modems don't work well with NewtonMail either. Our own limited testing shows varying results; some external modems work flawlessly and others seem not to work at all.
Black Labs says they expect a future version of FirstClass Retriever will include the ability to connect to a FirstClass server via AppleTalk as well as via modem. Upcoming wireless AppleTalk transceivers will make this an especially attractive feature. Also slated for a subsequent release is the ability to send and receive Newton package files and PICT-format pictures as FirstClass message attachments.
At this time, FirstClass Retriever isn't fully integrated with the built-in Newton mail capabilities. Black Labs plans to implement mechanisms to access email addresses from the Newton's Names list, and to move text easily between the Notes area and the body of a FirstClass message. The company intends to provide many of these enhancements in free updates to existing owners.
A future product, tentatively called Retriever+, will allow users to browse FirstClass conferences and send and receive conference messages, rather than just private mail. Black Labs is offering an advance-purchase upgrade discount price, $20, to Retriever purchasers who buy Retriever+ before it ships. Once the new product does ship, the upgrade price will be $40.
The company also plans upcoming Retriever products for MessagePad-equipped CompuServe and Unix users.
Black Labs, Inc. -- 303/938-8580 -- 303/938-8546 (fax)
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