SoftArc Inc., the Ontario-based developer of the FirstClass mail and conferencing software, announced earlier this month that an upcoming version of FirstClass will add TCP/IP to its suite of internally supported communications methods, which currently include asynchronous modem and other serial connections, AppleTalk, Communications Toolbox (CTB), and IPX links. The addition of TCP/IP support means that anyone using the Internet via a Macintosh or a computer running Windows with a TCP/IP connection will be able to access FirstClass boards hooked to the Internet, making for just one more in a series of ever-increasing explosions of information sources on the net.
FirstClass servers will also be able to exchange server-to-server mail and conference messages through TCP/IP links. Currently, CTB support within FirstClass permits jury-rigged IP-based connections using freeware or commercial CTB connection tools, but such links have been reported to be unreliable in many cases.
To take advantage of TCP/IP connectivity, FirstClass client users must run Apple's MacTCP control panel on Macintosh computers, or must configure Windows systems with a WinSock-compliant TCP/IP protocol stack. MacTCP is available individually, or at fairly good site license rates, from Apple (and is rumored to be slated for inclusion at no extra charge in System 7.5), or is included free with copies of Adam's Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh. Adam's Internet Starter Kit for Windows includes a WinSock stack with Chameleon Sampler, and there are shareware WinSock stacks available on the nets - look at:
SoftArc says TCP/IP support has already been implemented at some of its corporate customer sites and plans to begin general shipment of TCP/IP-enabled versions of its server and client software by October. The protocol module that provides TCP/IP connectivity on a given FirstClass server will list for $995. The IPX protocol module, previously required for any network client-to-server connections for clients running Microsoft Windows, has a list price of $495, and the Windows interface option costs $295. The company may offer a discounted price to its hobbyist BBS customers; public-access bulletin boards already receive considerable discounts on the FirstClass server software.
According to SoftArc, the company elected to pursue this "a la carte" approach to supplying multiple network protocols and user interfaces so as not to force all customers to pay for unneeded features. Companies using FirstClass on a solely Mac-based network, for example, have no need for either a Windows user interface or IPX connectivity, and won't want to pay for development of these capabilities. The FirstClass server software itself costs only $95; user licenses (mailboxes) and connectivity options are sold separately by SoftArc and a worldwide network of "SoftArc Certified Consultants.". Server and client software upgrades are always free. (Registered users may download updates, as well as foreign-language versions of the client software, from SoftArc Online, the company's support BBS, found at the number below. The company moved earlier this month, so check the number before you dial.)
Steve Hall, a long-time FirstClass user and, since earlier this year, FirstClass administrator at Wellfleet Corporation in Massachusetts, says the TCP/IP implementation "works very well" and is "very reliable." His primary complaint at the moment is that the version Wellfleet currently uses does not support DNS (directory name services) lookups. As a result, his users must, for now, enter numeric IP addresses rather than domain-style names such as "ftp.tidbits.com." A surprise during Wellfleet's testing was that Windows client access via TCP/IP is "much faster" than Macintosh client access via AppleTalk, so Steve's main FirstClass client platform is now a Windows machine.
Hall adds that FirstClass works quite well over SLIP or PPP dialup TCP/IP connections, using both Macintosh and Windows client software. His Windows users work with Chameleon or Distinct to provide TCP/IP services. Because Wellfleet's Windows users already dial in for FTP, terminal sessions, and database access using SLIP or PPP, it's convenient for them to now use FirstClass through the same connection.
SoftArc's TCP/IP project is likely to result in more and more FirstClass servers popping up on the Internet. Many will be private mail and conferencing systems run by companies for their employees' use, such as the systems at Wellfleet, but quite a few are likely to be support bulletin boards run by hardware and software companies, or even public bulletin boards.
Ironically, these servers might have trouble exchanging messages with non-FirstClass systems on the Internet. Currently, there is no SMTP mail gateway available for FirstClass servers. SoftArc has yet to specify a release date for the gateway it has had under development for a while, and the sole third-party SMTP gateway for FirstClass is no longer available. SoftArc does offer a UUCP gateway, and Information Access Technologies has a FirstClass version of its HoloGate software, but neither offers the full-time, direct-access benefits of SMTP.
Some would say it's just as well; FirstClass servers have been targeted as being particularly poorly behaved participants on the Internet in general and in Usenet discussions in particular. Most of the difficulties can be attributed to gateway problems (such as the recent barrage of unwanted article duplicates in comp.sys.mac.comm) but some are merely due to the fact that FirstClass itself is not an Internet mail program or a Usenet news program; the gateways must convert between FirstClass and Internet concepts, and there isn't always a direct translation.
We hope that SoftArc will begin by fixing the more cosmetic problems their current gateway causes (mostly easy fixes) and use the resulting momentum and good feelings to tackle the tougher problems of cleanly incorporating FirstClass into a worldwide network where following conventions and adhering to standards means everything.
SoftArc -- 905/415-7000 -- 905/415-7151 (fax)
905/415-7070 (BBS) -- <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Information Access Technologies -- 510/704-0160
510/704-8019 (fax) -- 510/704-1058 (BBS) -- <email@example.com>
-- Information from:
Steve Hall, Wellfleet Corp.