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Central to the woof and lore of the development of electronic bulletin boards is money - how to do more communicating with less money. Most of the developments in bulletin boards were not firsts. It wasn't that no one had done it before, it was more that no one had done it before that cheaply, and so for most of the world it wasn't doable. Running a time sharing service on a million dollars worth of hardware was not in and of itself an accomplishment. But only a handful of humans had the opportunity to do so. Doing even a distant approximation of the same thing on a $2000 personal computer was remarkable not that it was technically superior or even similar. It is remarkable in that it can be done on a $2000 computer. And many of the early BBS systems were pieced together from discarded parts of $2000 computers that the sysop actually had more on the order of several hundred dollars total hard cash investment in - and a lot of work.

And one of the fundamental costs ever under attack by the BBS community is telephone costs. FidoNet was born to some degree because Tom Jennings didn't like paying long distance telephone bills. The original concept was to pass mail in batches in the wee hours of the morning when rates were lowest.

For many BBS callers, dialing a local BBS costs precisely zero dollars and zero cents. They are dialing a local number with no toll charges by the minute. But we were a bit surprised to learn from the 1992 Boardwatch 100 Reader's Choice Contest that some 27% of all those voting, nominated a BBS in a DIFFERENT area code from their own as their favorite system. And while we have no way of measuring caller activity long distance within the SAME area code, we have to believe that at least half the calling activity in BBSland is actually long distance - on the clock so to speak.

Have most of the BBS callers in the country won the lottery and thrown thrift out the window? Not precisely. But increasingly, they are actively participating on distant bulletin boards at very minimal costs. They're doing this with offline mail readers.

The basic operation is fairly straight forward. Callers access a door program on their favorite BBS and “setup” by selecting the message conferences they wish to participate in. Thereafter, each time they call, they can access the door and it will pack up all relevant messages from those conferences into a single compressed archive packet, usually with the PKZIP program but with others as well. The caller then downloads the packet and disconnects from the system. The packet contains all unread messages from all the conferences they have selected.

The caller then uncompresses the .QWK archive and uses an offline mail reader to browse, search, read, and respond to messages in any of the selected conferences. The offline mail reader functions as a combination message base and message editor, allowing the caller to get the feeling of being ON the BBS, but actually completely disconnected. When they're finished, the offline mail reader creates another packet containing any replies entered. The caller then dials back to the BBS, and uploads the reply packet through the QMail door program. The door then inserts the replies into the actual message base on the bulletin board.

The net effect is that with a telephone call spanning just a few minutes to download a packet, and another even shorter telephone call to upload replies, callers can participate in hundreds of mess age conferences with the same dispatch as being on the board for hours. Actually, the offline mail readers have progressed at this point to where the caller has more tools, including spelling checkers, use of their own editor or word processor, and various storage, search, and printing options just not available on the BBS itself. In this way, a caller can do mail with BBSs anywhere in the country at a tiny fraction of the cost of being “live” on the system.

How did all of this get started? Mark Herring, dubbed “Sparky” by a Radio Shack manager he was doing some consulting work for a number of years ago, developed the first offline mail reader widely used in the BBS community. A Memphis computer consultant, Herring was moderately active on bulletin board systems in 1987. A friend of his, Dan Mascheck, relocated from Memphis to Wharton Texas - some 60 miles outside of Houston. Mascheck regularly called the bulletin boards in Memphis to stay in touch and complained about the long distance bills he was incurring in doing so.

Herring had earlier done some work on a networking program for PCBoard BBS systems titled PCBEcho. So he told Mascheck he would see what he could workup for him. The result was a combination of a door program for PCBoard and a stand alone utility callers could use to dial in and fetch packets of mail from the door program. He titled it QMail. And it rather caught on.

According to Herring, life since then has held several surprises. “First, I spent all of30 minutes on the .QWK file format used by QMail. If I had known it would catch on the way it has, I might have done a lot of things differently. Second, I thought the entire universe for this program was maybe 40 copies.”

By the time he released the QMail Reader and QMail Door on April 15, 1988, he already had 32 orders in hand from enthusiastic BBS operators. Since then, over 15,000 users have REGISTERED a copy of QMail. The .QWK door and file format have been used to develop entire BBS networks - originally Interlink (later renamed ILINK). And there are now probably 50 different programs purporting to be the ultimate .QWK offline mail reader.

As best we can tell, the top five mail readers remain QMaill/QMail Deluxe, Silly Little Mail Reader and it's successor OLX, EZ-Reader, 1stReader, and WinQuick.

Silly Little Mail Reader, abbreviated SLMR and pronounced “SLIMER” registered some 2400 users as a shareware product. It was originally written by Greg Hewgill, who sold the product to Mustang Software Inc. and in fact joined the company. Today, the successor to SLMR, titled OLX, is packaged with Mustang's QmodemPro terminal program.

Typically, offline mail readers do none of the actual chores of communicating with the BBS. A separate terminal program is used to download .QWK packets and upload .REP reply packets. And usually, the compress/un compress function is performed by a separate utility such as PKZIP as well. For new callers, the combination of terminal programs, mail fetch scripts, compression utilities, and the offline mail reader itself, can be a little daunting to setup - not terribly difficult, but containing a number of components.

Herring wanted to get his father involved in mail conferences, but realized that for the only casually interested, the barriers to getting online were too troublesome. :Until we realize that most of the world is not going through all this to be on a bulletin board, going to be left with just us byte heads holding flaming wars online.“, claims Herring. His attempt at simplifying the process is the latest Sparkware release - 1st Reader. The program contains the terminal program - with a script language, built-in ZMODEM file transfers, and built-in compression software to deal with ZIP files. 1st Reader, released just this year, is already estimated to rank fourth in all time offline mail reader sales at a list price of $25.

There is a test drive version of 1st Reader available in the files 1STlOlA-ZIP and 1ST-101B.ZIP. The program is rather seriously crippled in that it is limited to reading only 20 messages per conference, and on exit rather forcefully tries to get you to dial Sparky's BBS at (615)230-8822 to register the program. His original QMail Deluxe 2 product remains popular and is available in the file D2-125.ZIP.

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