At the beginning of the year, if you wanted to subscribe to an Internet mailing list, you'd have to send a message to a mainframe or Unix-based workstation running a program like LISTSERV, Listproc, or Majordomo. But just a few months later, there are three full-fledged Mac-based mailing list processors available, each of which brings its own unique strengths and weaknesses to the table.
ListSTAR -- The most publicized list processor is StarNine's ListSTAR, a commercial "mailbot" and list server package. ListSTAR comes in four different versions: ListSTAR/SMTP, which acts as its own SMTP server (but not as a POP server); and three versions that require another mail server: ListSTAR/POP (requiring a POP/SMTP server like the Apple Internet Mail Server, formerly known as MailShare), ListSTAR/MS (for Microsoft Mail-based systems), and ListSTAR/QM (for QuickMail systems). ListSTAR/SMTP is smart about large mail jobs: if a mailing list includes several users from a single site, it'll make one connection to that site and send a message to all five users at once. In contrast, the Apple Internet Mail Server is a little less friendly, making one connection for every entry on a distribution list.
Aside from the networking code, all four ListSTARs behave exactly the same: they process incoming mail by moving sequentially through a set of user-defined rules. Rule are triggered by the content of the incoming message and perform actions like sending a reply, forwarding the message to a mailing list, adding or removing the sender from a mailing list, and even executing an AppleScript.
As a result, ListSTAR is a powerful tool that's extremely customizable, meaning that with enough coaxing, it could probably perform just about any email operation imaginable. But that customizability comes at a price: ListSTAR can be complicated, and if your rules are buggy, you can bounce, lose, or misroute important mail.
Macjordomo -- A more traditional (and much easier to use) list server is the freeware Macjordomo 1.0 (no relation to the Unix Majordomo), just released by Michele Fuortes of Cornell University. Macjordomo is a POP/SMTP-based list server, requiring the use of a POP/SMTP mail server, whether that server is a Mac-based Apple Internet Mail Server or just some Unix-based server.
Macjordomo's strength is its interface. Setting up a list server and individual mailing lists is accomplished through a series of windows and dialog boxes. Users can personalize their server from within Macjordomo by editing a series of pre-configured generic welcome and error messages. Macjordomo requires one POP mailbox for its list server account and one additional box for each mailing list it's going to run (currently limited to nine lists, though that number is expected to increase in the next release).
Macjordomo can automatically create and mail out mailing list digests, and provides users on the outside with the set of list server commands you'd expect from a Unix-based list server like Majordomo or Listproc. Its main drawbacks are that it doesn't work as an auto-reply "mailbot," and it doesn't support APOP, the password-authentication scheme that adds extra security to POP transactions.
AutoShare and FireShare -- Two other list servers are extensions of Apple Internet Mail Server (AIMS), the Mac-based POP/SMTP server formerly available as MailShare. Though author Glenn Anderson has sold MailShare to Apple and will continue developing it for them (see TidBITS-284), AIMS 1.0 will remain freeware.
The freeware AutoShare, by Mikael Hansen of Denmark, is a simple application that must run on same server as MailShare. Because it waits for new messages to appear in a watch folder before acting, MailShare is less intrusive than POP/SMTP based list servers - it only acts when there's mail that needs to be processed, rather than repetitively logging in to see if there's new mail.
AutoShare offers the same list server functionality as Macjordomo, including automatic digests, plus some very strong "mailbot" features: You can create accounts on your AIMS server that will automatically respond to all mail with a canned text file, and even vary what text file is sent based on the text in the Subject line. [In fact, TidBITS currently uses AutoShare to handle all of our automatic replies, such as Adam's, um, personal FAQ, available at <email@example.com>. -Geoff]
The downside with AutoShare is that doesn't offer much of an interface. Configuring AutoShare involves creating folders and correctly-named text files in the correct places. It's not very intuitive. A QuickStart document (in the interests of full disclosure, I wrote it) seems to ease the installation process somewhat, but using AutoShare isn't for the timid. Still, once you have the hang of it, AutoShare can be a seamless addition to your existing AIMS or MailShare server.
In addition to the final 1.0 version, Mikael Hansen released a "1.0 fix" edition of AutoShare that fixes bugs involving AutoShare's "vacation mail" automatic reply system.
Also available as an extension to MailShare is Jerry Stratton's "liberalware" FireShare, a series of AppleScript applets that work similarly to AutoShare, reacting when AIMS has placed new messages in a drop folder. FireShare offers mailing list, auto-reply, and FTP-by-mail capabilities. Though it's even harder to get up and running than AutoShare, its AppleScript nature makes it a highly customizable option for scripting aficionados. "Liberalware" means that registration involves sending a $10 donation to one of a selection of political organizations - details are available on FireShare's web pages.
Checking It Twice -- Which Mac mail server is right for you depends a great deal on your needs: ListSTAR is a powerful option for users who need customizability and the support of a commercial vendor; Macjordomo is easy to configure and use; AutoShare offers strong mailbox features and dovetails well with AIMS; and FireShare comes in highly customizable AppleScript form. Since all of these are available freely on the Internet (StarNine has made a time-limited version of ListSTAR available on their FTP site), you can look at them all and choose the one that's right for you - an option we didn't have just a few months ago.
StarNine Technologies, Inc. -- 800/525-2580 -- 510/649-4949