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E-Mail for the Rest of Us

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Open Computing ``Hands-On'': ``PC-Unix Connection'' Column: July 94

E-Mail for the Rest of Us

Spread the wealth of Unix's features with Pine, an e-mail manager with
something for everyone from superusers to stupor users

By Tom Yager

If you don't understand Unix, you have no business using it. At least, that
used to be the prevailing view among the Unix literate. Their hard-won
knowledge left them with an almost proprietary attitude regarding their pet
operating system. But now everybody's getting into the Unix waters--a positive
development, I think--and it forces change on some administrators who would
prefer to cater to knowledgeable users.

Recent Unix releases have spawned a class of chummy applications that take some
part of Unix and ostensibly make it easier to use. Graphical electronic mail
readers, point-and- click online manual page viewers, and system administration
tools are all common targets for the spoonful of sugar. I have no trouble with
the idea of making things easier. My gripe? Too often, functionality gets
sacrificed for simplicity. Can't anyone create something that is simple and

Someone has, and that something is called Pine. This e-mail manager, developed
by the University of Washington, is a virtually commercial-quality
application--with source code--available for free to the public. It is such a
laudably well-designed work that I have no trouble saying: if you use Unix to
send and receive e-mail, you really must get Pine.

Pine does everything you'd want a mail program to do--read, send, archive, even
manage addresses and lists--and it does so with a concise text interface that
runs as well on an X terminal as it does on a 9,600-baud modem connection.

You can retrieve the Pine source code via anonymous FTP from (in the /pine) directory or do an Archie search for
``pine'' to find it on other servers of your preference. I grabbed the source
code for version 3.89 and compiled it on my Unixware 1.1 lab system.

Under Its Skin

Pine not only typifies excellent interface design, but it also incorporates
features that rival commercial e-mail managers. The Unix version of Pine runs
on a variety of systems (AIX, SunOS/Solaris, and System V Release 4 among
them), but remote users not equipped with the big U can pick up PC-Pine. Pair
it with Sun's PC-NFS or one of a few other PC TCP/IP packages, and PC-Pine can
reach into your Unix mail host to pick up your messages.

The invisible portions of Pine are just as intriguing as its front end. It
incorporates support for several marvelous buzz- acronyms: SMTP, IMAP, and MIME
among them. The simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP) is the most widely
implemented scheme for transferring mail between Unix systems. Pine can connect
to SMTP server systems two ways: through Sendmail, if you've got it, or through
Pine's built-in SMTP client. If you want to reach into your mailbox from a
remote location without the overhead of a telnet session, Pine allows that,
too. IMAP stands for interactive mail access protocol. All you need is a
network-connected host and a copy of Pine. The source code includes an imapd
IMAP server that fields connections. Just specify the address of the remote
mail folder, and Pine makes the IMAP link. It then behaves as though the mail
were stored locally.

MIME, the multipurpose Internet mail extensions, seemed interesting to some
mostly because they permitted limited text attributes (underlining, bold) in
previously monotone e-mail text. Pine exploits MIME's ability to attach binary
files to mail messages. Have you ever had to explain to someone how to mail a
binary file? Pine's MIME facility makes it easy. You just specify the file (you
may choose it interactively) or files you want to attach. When the recipient
gets the message, the attachments are listed by Pine (or any other MIME-capable
mailer). He or she can save them to disk or, in the special case of GIF graphic
files, view them on an X Windows display.

Good Stuff Cheap

Lest Pine's price tag fool you into thinking it's beset with bugs and missing
features, take heart: It's one of the most solid and capable public-domain
programs I've seen in a long time.

A Pine session starts with its main menu (see Figure 1 (8K GIF)). If you're
using the system that contains your mail file, Pine opens the mail file and
tells you how many messages you've got when it puts up its main menu. This menu
is blissfully simple, holding only six items: Help, Compose, Index, Folder
List, Address Book, and Setup. I hacked the Pine code to keep curious fingers
out of the Setup menu so it's safer to use on my public-access system; it was
an easy fix.

The Compose option sends a message. Another hidden jewel of Pine is its editor,
Pico. Pico, which you may also run as a standalone program, is a radically
reduced subset of the Emacs full-screen editor. It gives you what you want,
including word wrap, modeless editing, and even a spelling checker (in the Unix
version only). When Pine invokes Pico, you also get fill-in-the-blanks mail
header editing. The editor prompts for ``To:'' and ``Cc:'' addressing (with
automatic nickname aliasing), binary MIME attachments, and subject.

After you fill in the header, the editor hops down to the lower portion of the
split screen where the message text resides. If you have a file named
..signature in your home directory, Pine adds it to the body of your message.
Pine keeps both incoming and outgoing messages in folders. It has default
folders, and you can create new folders of your own. It's a flat system (no
hierarchy), and Pine makes no distinction between folders holding inbound and
outbound mail. Still, all it takes to switch to a different folder is to select
from a list on the screen. That's typical of Pine; it never makes you type
something when it can be chosen from an on-screen list.

The Index selection lists the messages stored in the currently open folder
(usually ``INBOX,'' your default Unix mailbox). Pine puts up a list of
available messages to pick from. You can jump directly to a message number,
search subject strings for specific text, or even yank a sender's address into
your address book. Want to see only your new messages? Fire up the viewer by
hitting ``V'' or Enter--it's set up as the default action. Pressing the Tab key
brings up the next new message.

Pine's Address Book option keeps track of individuals and lists, using
nicknames you devise. You'll never have to type a complex Internet e-mail
address more than once. To blast a note to
[email protected], just enter your favorite nickname in the
``To:'' field of the header editor. Pine instantly expands it to the full

If you get lost in Pine, which is not at all easy, you can access the embedded
context-sensitive help system. Typing ``?'' from nearly anywhere will get you a
few screens of helpful text. If you've got a printer configured into Pine, you
can even print the help files. Of course, that capability extends to mail
messages as well.

A Role Model

You should always be on the lookout for ways to make your Unix box more
accessible to all classes of users. Pine is such a quality piece of work that
even your experienced users will find themselves using it as a matter of
course. Their affection, and mine, for Pine is for its just-right balance of
functionality and ease of use. I hope others, both in the academic and
commercial development communities, will take a page from Pine and build
applications that everyone can use.

Copyright © 1995 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Edited by Becca Thomas / Online Editor / UnixWorld Online / [email protected]

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Last Modified: Tuesday, 22-Aug-95 15:48:41 PDT