Claris OfficeMail is an interesting solution to the email problems of many small offices and schools. These groups want and need to use email to communicate within their organizations and, given the undeniable utility of Internet email, they also want to be able to send and receive mail from the Internet. For the most part, they generally don’t have large budgets, nor do they have dedicated computer support people who know how to run mail servers. And, despite the ever-increasing popularity of the Web, many may not yet have dedicated Internet connections of any sort.
The $299 OfficeMail is a LAN email server that supports SMTP and POP, the main ways of sending and receiving Internet email, and claims to be easy to set up, with three steps for internal use and an additional three steps if you want to send and receive Internet email. I walked through the steps, and I have to admit, it’s dead simple; Claris deserves credit for making the setup so easy. You can even get your own subdomain name within the clrs.com domain.
OfficeMail comes with a 5-pack of Claris Emailer for reading email, which is another good move, since Emailer is a powerful email client with some compelling features, most notably the capability to send and receive email from America Online and CompuServe as well as the Internet. Emailer’s glaring flaw (the way it creates an individual file for each email message you receive) is due to be fixed in the next version and probably wouldn’t seriously affect the low-volume use from most users of OfficeMail. You can also use the free Eudora Light or any other POP-based Internet email program to send and receive mail from a Claris OfficeMail server.
OfficeMail has reasonable system requirements, which is important because small offices and schools are likely to want to run the program on an old Mac that’s sitting around. OfficeMail requires a 68020 or higher, with 4 MB of RAM for a 68K Mac and 8 MB for a Power Mac. You’ll want a fair amount of disk space since OfficeMail has to store all the incoming email on disk until the user checks mail – a couple of large attachments will make a small hard disk struggle under the load. Of course, you need an AppleTalk or TCP/IP network, but it need not be connected to the Internet because OfficeMail requires a modem (preferably a fast one) to send and receive Internet email.
OfficeMail uses the modem to connect to ClarisLink, a service run by HoloNet using CompuServe Packet Network dialup numbers (presumably around the world). The fee is $39.95 per month for 10 hours and about $5.95 per hour after that (plus a $25 registration fee), which is probably reasonable for the normal email requirements of a small office. The trick is that OfficeMail uses UUCP (Unix to Unix CoPy), an older protocol used primarily for transferring email and Usenet news.
If you’re at all new to the Internet you may not have even heard of UUCP. UUCP programs aren’t high-profile, nor are they frequently updated, since UUCP hasn’t changed much in a long time. But, you can still get UUCP accounts from some Internet providers, and for inexpensive email using an offline model (where your computer connects, sends and receives mail, and disconnects, preferably in an automated fashion), UUCP still works fine. We at TidBITS used UUCP for years until finally getting a dedicated Internet connection toward the end of 1994, and I wrote about UUCP extensively in the first two editions of Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh (the chapter was pulled from the print version of the third edition, but appears in the online version.)
The main UUCP program for the Mac, uAccess, was marketed for a while by InterCon Systems as UUCP/Connect, but rights reportedly reverted back to Tim Endres, the developer, some time ago, and I’ve heard nothing about it since. There are two other free implementations of UUCP, Mac/gnuucp and uupc (which is reportedly slated for an upgrade soon). Check the URL below for the Mac UUCP software that’s generally available.
By using UUCP and tying OfficeMail to a specific Internet provider, Claris removed the complexity of dealing with TCP and potentially PPP, both of which can prove troublesome for novices to set up, particularly without sufficient documentation. (There’s a reason why the fourth edition of Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh devotes an entire chapter to troubleshooting advice related to connections.)
In the process, Claris also opted against making OfficeMail a full SMTP server, something that’s not clear from Claris’s propaganda about the program. Although an email client program like Eudora can use SMTP to connect to OfficeMail, OfficeMail cannot send mail out to the Internet via SMTP, as do full SMTP servers like the free Apple Internet Mail Server and Stalker Software’s flexible CommuniGate system, which is available for free evaluation. So, if you have a dedicated Internet connection, you can use OfficeMail, but it must still use a modem to connect to ClarisLink to send and receive email.
Actually, that’s not entirely true – you don’t have to connect to ClarisLink. OfficeMail seems to work only with ClarisLink, but in an undocumented feature, you can use, or at least try to use, any UUCP account with any Internet provider. Claris doesn’t advertise or document this feature because setting up a UUCP email connection isn’t easy, but with a bit of work it should be possible. OfficeMail uses the Apple Modem Tool to control the modem, so you can change its settings to dial your Internet provider. Then, in the Claris OfficeMail folder, there’s another folder called Claris OfficeMail Files. In it is a file called Mail Connect Script, which is a text file of the connect script OfficeMail uses to login and retrieve email. It’s not a task for the faint of heart, but you could edit that script (keep backups!) to connect to your Internet provider instead of ClarisLink. The script language is unusual, but simple and documented briefly at the top of the Mail Connect Script file. Needless to say, don’t expect Claris to provide any help whatsoever if you attempt this hack, but if you’re experienced with UUCP and are helping someone else set up a UUCP account, it might be a good solution.
So, if you have no dedicated Internet connection and want email, Claris OfficeMail is worth investigating. If you have a dedicated Internet connection via modem to a single Mac, but not to your entire network, check out CommuniGate or the combination of Apple Internet Mail Server and the shareware AIMS LocalTalk Bridge, which enables you to distribute mail internally to Macs on your network running Eudora Light. Finally, if you have a dedicated Internet connection for your entire network, try Apple Internet Mail Server or CommuniGate.
As a postscript, I wrote the first draft of this article as a rant after receiving and installing Claris OfficeMail partly because I was irritated by Claris’s silly spelling of OfficeMail as "OfficeM@il" (same with "Em@iler"), but mostly because all the OfficeMail information claimed that OfficeMail supported a number of Internet standards, including SMTP. However, I couldn’t get it to work as an SMTP server, nor could I see any SMTP setup options. I decided to check all this with Claris, and I had to talk to the developer before I was able to confirm that OfficeMail can’t talk to SMTP servers, that OfficeMail uses standard UUCP, and that it was theoretically possible to use other UUCP accounts. The propaganda didn’t even include UUCP as one of the Internet standards that OfficeMail supports – the only mention of UUCP on Claris’s Web site is in a pricing comparison note. Those seem like fairly major points to me, and they deserve mention somewhere in OfficeMail’s documentation and reviewer’s guide. OfficeMail may be great for novices, but if it confuses sophisticated users and writers through incomplete documentation, it’s in serious danger of receiving undeserved bad press.