Spry's AIR series has been available in a LAN version for a few years now, and only recently has Spry paid special attention to dialup connections. In the Internet In a Box, they have certainly produced an excellent dialup connectivity product without the legacy LAN configuration garbage that so often gets in the way with other products. Since the Internet In A Box product has been designed with dialup Internet access from the start, several of the products, such as AIR Mosaic, have been optimized for slow links and work well over a modem. The AIR series includes most, but not all, of the clients that I use on a daily basis.
AIR Mail is an interesting POP3 email client in that it has some features for which I've been searching. I'm impressed with the user interface that Spry has created for this important application. So many companies attach too little importance to the look and feel of their electronic mail packages. (That goes for nonPOP3 mail packages as well. I've used most of the commercial email packages and dislike them all.)
Here again, if you have installed IBox correctly, you have an icon called AIR Mail; you can start the application by double-clicking on it. You must fill in the information you received from your Internet provider in the Login and Preferences dialogs under the Options menu. The critical items to fill in are the name of your POP3 server (referred to as "Host" in this context) and your username. Once you've entered those items, pressing the F10 key tells AIR Mail to retrieve new mail... sort of.
OK, so much for the cliffhanger. When I say that pressing F10 retrieves new mail, that's only partially true. AIR Mail, as it's configured initially, retrieves only the headers for all of your mail. When you then click on one of those headers for reading, the message itself is downloaded to your PC and displayed in a typical message window. Keep in mind that the original mail stays on the POP3 server, and stays there until you drag that message to another folder or tell AIR Mail to delete it. If you get a lot of mail and don't delete the mail on the server, you'll notice that retrieving new mail starts to take an increasingly long time, even though you may only have a few new messages. That is because AIR Mail must retrieve all of the headers each time; it has no way of retrieving just new headers (see figure 12.10).
Figure 12.10: Spry AIR Mail mailbox.
AIR Mail also provides hierarchical folders for storing and categorizing your mail. This is a particularly well-implemented feature that enables me to store the hundreds of mail messages that I get, and store them in a way that I can make sense of later on when I need to find one. The only related feature that I would really like to see would be a search function that finds text embedded in mail that I have stored. This is a feature that I use in other mail packages quite frequently.
Last on the list of cool features in AIR Mail is the Message Headers items under the Options menu. Message Headers enables me to select precisely which of the message headers I'm actually interested in seeing. There are piles and piles of headers in the average Internet mail message, most of which the average reader is not interested in. You may use this feature to filter out headers like Message-id, which is of no interest to anyone.
I like AIR Mail a lot. I would seriously consider moving away from Eudora to AIR Mail if it just had a full text search function that would search all mailboxes. I go looking for old mail on the order of about four or five times a day, so I cannot live without this function. Other than that, Spry has done an excellent job with this POP3 mail client and I can recommend it strongly for people that have no need for the searching functions that I require.
AIR Telnet is a reasonable Telnet client and it sports a few features that distinguish it from the plain vanilla Telnet clients. About the best thing that I can say about a Telnet program is always that it didn't get in my way while I was doing working on some Internet host, so my going on and on about features is unlikely in any Telnet section. That said, I'll address a couple of things that make AIR Telnet nice to use.
The first screen that you see in AIR Telnet is the list of saved hosts. This screen provides you with a checkbox to determine whether or not each host that you connect to will be recorded and made available via this screen. If you leave the box checked, you need only type in the name of a machine once, and from then on select it from the list when you'd like to connect. I like this feature and its easy configuration. I tend to pick which machines to retain on an individual basis, unchecking the box when I'm connecting to some machine that I never wish to use again (see figure 12.11).
Figure 12.11: Spry Open Telnet Session.
The other feature that I find helpful in AIR Telnet is its scripting language. The language that Spry has embedded into its Telnet application is very small and simple (five different directives), but enough to do most of the session automation things that one likes to do with scripts. There is special attention paid to login scripts, but I would caution you to use login scripts only for public accounts, since these sorts of things must embed your password and make that account pretty insecure.
AIR Telnet is a solid Telnet package, with all of the features that I expect to see. I was able to use it relatively effortlessly and do all of the sorts of things that I need to accomplish with Telnet. My one complaint is with how color is handled. I usually like to change the color of Telnet sessions from black on white to another, more pleasing color. When I do this with AIR Telnet, I get unpredictable results. What I see most often is that anywhere on the screen where a character has actually been typed (by either me or the host computer), AIR Telnet paints the color that I selected. Everything else on the screen is painted black. This is annoying, but not debilitating.
Network File Manager is Spry's FTP client, and the name is easily explained. Spry has gone to some pains to recreate the Windows File Manager as an FTP client. There are some cool advantages to this approach, since you don't have to learn a new interface. Spry also included a little surprise for those that don't appreciate graphical slickness all of the time.
Network File Manager really shines in everyday usage. Start the program normally by double-clicking on the icon and it opens a host connection dialog for you to pick a site. Behind the host connection dialog, you should notice that the Windows File Manager has been launched. Above it appears something that looks like File Manager without any files to manage -- more on these screens later. First fill in the host connection information. Here, like the AIR Telnet application, you have the choice of remembering the hosts that you've connected to in the past and only having to type each host name once.
Once you select the host that you wish to connect to, the host connection dialog disappears and the two File Managers remain on your screen. Shortly, if all goes well with the connection, Network File Manager presents you with a list of files and directories in the upper File Manager, the Network File Manager section. If you've used the File Manager with more than one disk drive opened, you are already familiar with how to proceed from here. You can navigate through the remote disk as you would a local DOS volume, and retrieving a file is a matter of dragging the file from the Network File Manager window to the local Windows File Manager window. To upload a file, do the reverse: just drag a file from the local Windows File Manager to the remote File Manager (see figure 12.12)
Figure 12.12: Spry's Network File Manager.
Here's the surprise. If you look for it, there's a command-line interface to FTP in the default installation for IBox. Although it's not automatically installed into the IBox program group, you can create an icon for the program ftpchar.exe yourself and use this as a quick, no-frills FTP client. This can be a useful tool when you know exactly what file you want and where it is, and would rather not navigate the graphical interface, no matter how well designed it is.
Personally, I think that someone at Spry should get special commendation for the idea of implementing FTP like this. It's a terrific way to take advantage of all of the learning that we've already done to use the Windows File Manager. I applaud programming that doesn't make me learn a whole new paradigm every time I launch a new program.
Like most of Spry's clients in IBox, AIR News was designed to address a lot of complaints that I and others have had about the WinSock software available in the past. I always enjoy working with a product that's been designed by people that have a need for the product itself, and I would say that the design team for AIR News reads Usenet news on a regular basis. One wonders how they managed to get this much work done.
NOTE: Actually, I know that the folks from Spry read Usenet news quite a lot, as they are a very active presence in some of the newsgroups that I read. Though I can't say that they have an official reader for alt.winsock, intelligent questions about IBox clients and software tend to get answered authoritatively.
AIR News is preconfigured to connect to news.interserv.com, an NNTP server site operated by Spry, but the number of available newsgroups for persons not registered for the Spry service access is very small. For demonstration purposes, or for just getting your feet wet, it's OK.
Operation is as you would expect, with the exception that you find access to the list of newsgroups and any personally subscribed groups via the Newsgroup Browser item under the standard Window menu.
Once you have the list of newsgroups, you can navigate through the hierarchy as you would through the Windows File Manager (see the pattern here?). Note that folders with a "+" on them denote folders that contain other folders or newsgroups. When you get to a group/folder that does not have a plus in it, that yields a list of articles when you open it (see figure 12.13).
Figure 12.13: Looking at new articles.
When looking at the article list it becomes apparent that Spry designed AIR News to tell you as much as possible about threads. Threads are represented graphically in a way that makes it clear who posted follow-ups to the original article and who responded to a follow-up. Sophisticated threading is tremendously useful as you try to minimize the time you spend reading news.
I enjoy using AIR News because of its unique threading features. Of the other newsreaders that support threading, none present it in quite such a clear fashion. I'm somewhat disappointed by the lack of an automatic uudecoding feature, since this lack forces me to start up another program if I want to decode a file that someone posted as a uuencoded binary file (the standard for transmission of binary files in Usenet news). The addition of uudecoding would be simple and would make AIR News my newsreader of choice.
AIR Mosaic is one of an increasing number of commercial Web browsers that contains licensed source code from the folks at NCSA, and it shows up in the look and feel of the product. Essentially, if you like the way NCSA's Mosaic works, you probably won't have problems with AIR Mosaic. That is not to say that Spry has not added value to the program, just that it works and acts very similarly to its free predecessor. I guess that this isn't too surprising, considering that along with source code, Spry lured one of the NCSA programmers to Seattle to be part of the AIR Mosaic development team.
AIR Mosaic works, as I said, nearly identically to NCSA's Mosaic. After you've double-clicked on the icon in Program Manager, it presents you with a home page. At that point, you can choose to scroll around on the home page, click on a link to move to another page, or connect to some arbitrary Web page.
If you'd like to connect to some arbitrary URL, you have two choices. You may pull down the File menu and select Open URL, which presents you with a dialog box for you to enter a new URL. Or, if that's too slow for you, you can just type a new URL into the field at the top of the viewing area, entitled Document URL, and press the Enter key. This Document URL field displays the current URL for the current page, but doubly functions as a command dialog to warp you to a new place entirely. This works especially well if you've just copied a URL from another application and would like to paste it into AIR Mosaic quickly (see figure 12.14).
Figure 12.14: AIR Mosaic main screen.
As with most modern Web browsers, you can add the current URL to what's known as a hotlist, and you can refer to it in the future, without having to find the URL again or type it in. To do this, merely pull down the Navigate menu and choose Add Document to Hotlist. To view your current hotlist, click on the flaming paper icon at the top of the viewing area, and AIR Mosaic displays a list of URLs. At that point, moving to an item on your hotlist is merely a matter of locating it in the list and double-clicking on the list item.
The only truly unique thing that I saw in AIR Mosaic is the "kiosk mode," which enables you to use the application as a screen-filling, dedicated-machine sort of program without showing the menus. Aside from hiding the menu bar, AIR Mosaic behaves exactly the same as normal. This feature would certainly interest anyone who is considering setting up a public kiosk and allowing some sort of controlled public access to a specific set of information.
AIR Mosaic is a good general-purpose Web browser, but I'm actually somewhat disappointed. Given the quality of the rest of the IBox programs, I expected to be surprised in some way by a particularly powerful Web browser. In fact, AIR Mosaic is a perfectly serviceable Web browser that meets all of my minimum specifications, but it simply doesn't knock my socks off. I'm also a bit annoyed that there's an entire menu item devoted to connecting to GNN, which, although perfectly OK, isn't one of the most useful places on the Web. and the embedded address, gnn.com, can be extremely difficult to access. I've tried to access this server many times from several different machines, and it seems to be purely chance whether I'll contact it or not. The error messages that users get when they inevitably try out any of the items under that menu is confusing and seems a bit silly. I can imagine that this generates quite a few calls to technical support at Spry.
AIR Gopher shows us that Spry has gone to some lengths to make the look and feel of the AIR clients as much the same as possible. The paradigm that it has chosen to use is roughly that of the Windows File Manager. In the case of the Network File Manager, this is a great fit; and in the case of AIR Mail, it's nice way to organize electronic mail. I find that it makes for a reasonable Gopher idea as well.
Open up AIR Gopher by double-clicking on the open book icon in the Ibox program group. This presents you with a large parent window with the essential menus associated with navigating in Gopherspace, plus a smaller child window opened up on the Spry Gopher server. You'll notice that, like the Windows File Manager and Spry's Network File Manager, the left-hand side is the folder or directory detail and the right-hand side presents file and subdirectory information.
Single clicks on folders on the left side expands the listings on the right side. Double-clicking on a leaf item (anything that's not a folder) on the right side either downloads that item to your computer or downloads it and attempts to display it according to the associations that you have made between file types and display programs (see figure 12.15)
Figure 12.15: AIR Gopher manager.
You may choose to associate any of the Gopher-recognized file types with a specific viewer by selecting the File menu and choosing Associate. This brings up a dialog box enabling you to choose what programs to use to display the given file types. This comes in handy if you have an image viewer that you like better than the one shipped with Ibox (Imageview), or a text viewer that you like better than Windows Write, which are the defaults in each case.
NOTE: Associations are not a new concept here. Because Windows and DOS do not standardize on the way extensions map to application programs, you must sometimes define them yourself. This is actually a bonus when you dislike the default application.
To use a server other than the Spry Gopher Server, select the Connections menu and choose Connect to New Server, or just press Control-N if you'd prefer the shortcut. Either way, AIR Gopher presents you with a new dialog, asking for the title of this server (give it a unique name) and its host name (the name of the actual Gopher server). A new dialog opens and you can now peruse the server. Since Gopher servers and clients establish a new connection upon each request, you may have as many of these child windows active as you wish. You can even initiate several file transfers simultaneously -- AIR Gopher keeps track of each connection for you.
I like the fact that this program along with others in the AIR suite seem to share a common interface philosophy; and I also like the fact that new Gopher servers are added as separate child windows rather than incorporated in some way into the current connection. This enables me to work on several things at once. Also nice is the simple and clear way of associating my own viewers with the file types that Gopher knows about. I am seldom content with whatever other people choose for me, and need to have control over this part of my environment.
The only drawback that I see is a lack of support for some parts of the Gopher specification. In particular, I often use a CSO index URL at the University of Idaho to look up names and phone numbers of people I converse with there. Many of the Gopher clients I have tried have no problem with this URL, but for some reason, AIR Gopher shows it as an error.
As of this writing, Microsoft Windows 95 is not yet shipping. But hey, this is only February. Microsoft has ten more months to go. So in anticipation of this event, I'll spend a brief (very brief) moment describing some of the features of the WinSock application suite.
Microsoft's suite of applications doesn't really inspire me and in the scheme of things it shouldn't. If Microsoft decided to make killer WinSock applications, then all the other companies would scream "unfair advantage." In an age in which whatever Microsoft does is subject to scrutiny -- even by the government -- it can't be too careful.
As of Beta 2, October 1994, Microsoft was still trying to figure out which features to leave or remove, so it's just possible that some of these applications will not be available come ship time. That's a beta for you.
Microsoft Exchange is a new product designed to integrate a variety of mail systems into a unified user interface. It can handle multiple back-ends including CompuServe, Microsoft Mail, and even SMTP mail via a POP3 server (see figure 12.16)
Figure 12.16: Configuring Exchange to use a POP3 mail server.
Exchange can reach out to a host via TCP/IP and SMTP, grab your mail, and deposit it into your inbox. Likewise, it can dial up CompuServe and grab your mail there. And, it can also read your mail at a local Microsoft Mail Postoffice. Doing so, you have a single point of entry for all your email needs (wow, does that sound like a marketing slogan?).
Microsoft has finally adopted MIME and can encode attachments in this format -- enabling you to exchange files with others, regardless of platform (see figure 12.17).
Figure 12.17: Setting a mail message's encoding format.
You create addresses by adding entries into a Personal Address Book. By associating a friendly name with a mail system and an appropriate ID, Exchange maintains the proper routes.
The beauty of this system is that once you've entered this information into your Personal Address Book, you never have to remember where people are. Does Joe use CompuServe or does he have a proper Internet address? This becomes unimportant because you only have to enter it once.
Replying to a message is just as easy because the program remembers where the message came from and how to reply. Pretty neat, huh?
The basics of composing a message have not changed much over the standard Microsoft Mail client. However, you can now add formatting, including text styles. It is unclear how a recipient on the Internet would view these messages, as formatting is not universal. I suspect that Exchange would strip styling of Internet-bound mail (mail bound for anything but Microsoft Mail for that matter) unless the encoding is MIME (see figure 12.18).
Figure 12.18: Formatting a mail message in Exchange.
Telnet seems to have inherited its look and feel from Microsoft Terminal, which isn't saying much. It does just about everything you'd want in a Telnet program. I guess Telnet just isn't very exciting (see figure 12.19).
Figure 12.19: Microsoft Telnet.
Microsoft implemented FTP as a command-oriented utility. It works just like FTP on a Unix host and has absolutely no graphical elements. Give this one a miss unless you know exactly where you're going and you know exactly which file you want. You won't do yourself any favors if you're browsing through directory trees (see figure 12.20).
Figure 12.20: Microsoft FTP.
You'll notice that this is really an MS-DOS application not a Windows application. However, since Windows 95 runs only on a 386-enhanced processor, you can display it in a floating window. How many 286 machines are out there anyway?
Windows 95 includes a number of other applications that aren't really applications. They're more like utilities that help diagnose or display the condition of the WinSock TCP/IP protocol stack. Unix users are already familiar with them, but they are mostly foreign to Windows users. They are:
As you can see, these utilities aren't very exciting. Yet, they are the most valuable tools if trying to figure out why you aren't connecting to your favorite Web server.
Oh, and one last thing. All these utilities must be run from an MS-DOS session. If you need assistance with any of the commands, just type the command followed by /?. For instance, to get more information on netstat, type netstat /?. You'll get the following description:
C:\>netstat /? Displays protocol statistics and current TCP/IP network connections. NETSTAT [-a] [-e] [-n] [-s] [-p proto] [-r] [interval] -a Displays all connections and listening ports. (Server-side connections are normally not shown). -e Displays Ethernet statistics. This may be combined with the -s option. -n Displays addresses and port numbers in numerical form. -p proto Shows connections for the protocol specified by proto; proto may be tcp or udp. If used with the -s option to display per-protocol statistics, proto may be tcp, udp, or ip. -r Displays the contents of the routing table. -s Displays per-protocol statistics. By default, statistics are shown for TCP, UDP and IP; the -p option may be used to specify a subset of the default. interval Redisplays selected statistics, pausing interval seconds between each display. Press CTRL+C to stop redisplaying statistics. If omitted, netstat will print the current configuration information once.
Well, that wraps up our quick tour through what I consider to be the two -- three if you count Windows 95 -- main sets of commercial Internet applications. Although there are plenty of other commercial packages, for the most part the different Internet clients all work more or less the same. And of course, if you purchase any commercial Internet package, you should get a manual and technical support from the company.
But what if you don't wish to hand out that many nickels for a program you can't necessarily evaluate first, or which you haven't read about in these pages? Let's move on to the next chapter, where I talk about the noncommercial Internet client programs. These programs are generally free or inexpensive shareware, and some of the are best of the breed.