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Browse this for a primer on maximizing e-mail

It is cheap. It is fast. It is effective. “It” is e-mail. In this column, we look at software that helps your business take better advantage of e-mail service.
E-mail is a computer- and network-based system that lets you send and receive electronic text messages (and other information) from other users anywhere in the world, at little cost. Businesses and individuals sign up with an online service–such as CompuServe (http://www.compuserve.com) or America Online (http://www.aol.com)–or with an Internet-service provider–such as SpryNet (http://www.sprynet.com) or VivaNet (http://www.vivanet.com)–to get an e-mail address and gain access to the Internet.
E-mail lets businesses keep in touch with employees and business partners without the constraints of needing both parties available at the same time, or cost considerations. Parents and college students, or family dispersed around the country, can keep in touch cheaply and easily. The popularity of e-mail is well-deserved.
Most people are content with the e-mail software they start with, but other offerings may make them more effective in their business tasks.

Features
While millions of new users join the electronic world each month, the software and corporate policies used for e-mail–the most basic of Internet tasks–have not kept up with that of a similar tool: the word processor. Word processors accomplish a similar task–composition of messages–but put their end result on paper instead of sending it off on phone wires.
Word processors do not need to receive messages, as e-mail software does. Some word processing capabilities –such as columns, embedding graphics and indexing–do not have an immediate place in the largely text-only world of e- mail. However, many word processing features are starting to show up in e-mail programs, and vice versa.
What should you expect to see in an e- mail package?

Composing messages
In the simplest form, the sender goes through six steps. First, she types the recipient’s e-mail address when prompted. Then, she adds a subject line that summarizes the message that follows. Next, she indicates whether anyone should be copied in on the message. The greatest time is spent preparing the actual message. After spell-checking it, it is sent on its way.
Most e-mail software lets you maintain an e-mail address book, where you can keep and easily retrieve the e-mail addresses of people you correspond with repeatedly. Many let you classify some of those names into groups so you can more easily send a common message to several parties–such as “all managers,” “second-shift employees” or “board of directors.”
The electronic equivalent of letterhead is the use of a sig (signature), a predefined block with your company name, address, phone number and other important information. Most mail packages let you save a personal sig, which can be automatically included with your mail as you compose it.
Most e-mail packages also let you attach additional files–such as word processing, spreadsheet and other binary files–and control the necessary steps of preparing the files for e-mail transfer. Finally, the software can transfer the composed messages to the computer system for sending.

Retrieving messages
Likewise, e-mail software can go to your service provider to get the messages waiting for you. A list of the messages appears in a window, which you can sort through by sender, date or subject, and then view the contents. Once you have read the message, you may wish to reply to the sender, send a copy of it on to someone else, place a copy in an e-mail folder or print out the message.

Extra features
While most e-mail software can do the above tasks, you will find some have additional functionality that may be important for your business. Additional tools for more effectively composing mail include word processing-like style sheets and templates to help ensure that documents are more likely in accordance with firm policies; mail merge, so customized messages can be sent to groups more easily; and tools for writing in non- English text.
Add to that the basic premise that correspondence sent by e-mail is about as secure as that written on the back of a postcard. Built-in encryption (making the message unreadable without a code) can broaden the scope of what you can safely discuss by e-mail.
For receiving mail, some e-mail packages let you set up automated filters to file, forward to another user, or delete messages based on from whom the messages come and the contents of the messages. You can set a filter to delete junk mail, while mail from clients or customers can be directed automatically to the appropriate recipient.
In addition, an integrated virus checker, such as McAfee’s WebScan (800-338-8754 or http://www.mcafee.com) can add some peace of mind to what you are downloading.

Examples: Basic
Where do you get e-mail software? Your online-service provider probably included a mail client with the software it provided when you enrolled. How does your e-mail software rate? Do you wish it could do more? Take a look at some of the e-mail packages we’ve reviewed. The price is right, and the features can make a big difference.

Proprietary mail software
Two companies that offer free e-mail service and provide their own software are Juno (http://www.juno.com) and Freemark (http://www.freemark.com). These are proprietary software packages and proprietary services. CompuServe offers many software front ends to its software, including WinCIM; America Online also has a proprietary user interface. Both incorporate e-mail software to send and receive messages to other users on the same service, and to any service or users connected to the Internet.

Unix
If you are using a dial-up account, you are probably calling into a Unix system, where you can use steady mail software including elm and pine (which stands for “pine is not elm”).

Windows
If you subscribe to SpryNet, you will receive Spry Mail as your e-mail program. It is perfectly capable of performing basic e-mail functions on- and off- line. It integrates with Spry Mosaic for searching the Web.
Where would you go from there? If you use Microsoft Office products, you may want to move to one of its own e- mail clients. Microsoft Exchange ships with Windows 95 and includes tools for encryption, as well as easy integration with Word and other Office products. Microsoft Corp. also makes its Internet Mail e-mail software available for free from its Web site (http://www.microsoft. com).
If you use Netscape Navigator to browse the Web, Netscape includes its own e-mail client (Netscape Mail) with its browser for the World Wide Web (http://home.netscape.com). These provide similar functionality, but are better integrated to Netscape’s browsers and other software.
If you need more power, Pegasus Mail is a popular Windows-based freeware software, which means it may be used on as many workstations and servers as required without charge or obligation. Pegasus claims more than 4 million users and has many advanced features, such as encryption and mail-filtering capabilities. You can find the package in shareware collections and as part of other commercial packages; for example, it is bundled with McAfee’s WebScan software.
Connectsoft’s E-mail Connection (http://www.connectsoft.com) is another well-regarded freeware e-mail package.

Examples: Advanced
Are you looking for some additional capabilities?
Foreign character sets
If you have foreign correspondents, take a look at Internet with an Accent, from Accent Software International Ltd. (www.accentsoft.com). Internet with an Accent adds multilingual capabilities to any compatible mail program and comes with special integration to CommTouch Software’s Pronto Mail, included with the package.
With Accent Multilingual MailPad, you can send and receive messages in more than 30 languages, including Cyrillic, Hebrew and other unusual character sets. The foreign character sets are not a standard, so your recipient needs a little help in reading this text. Fortunately, if your correspondents do not own MailPad, they can still read your message. They can download the Accent Multilingual Viewer, which allows them to read any message you send them.
Internet with an Accent also includes tools for creating and reading Web pages in other languages.

Contact management
To really supercharge e-mail, take a look at Goldmine for Windows 95, from Goldmine Software (http://www.goldminesw.com). Goldmine integrates e-mail into a complete contact-management system. You can maintain e-mail addresses with your complete contact background; create mail merge and other correspondence for paper, fax or e-mail; and track e-mail received by the company from which you received it.
You can receive e-mail messages and incorporate the sender into a predefined series of events that are triggered automatically, from an initial automatic e-mail response to a schedule of phone calls, letters, faxes and e-mail. Goldmine can create new-prospect records, or attach incoming e-mail to a pre-existing contact record for complete tracking of all correspondence.
Goldmine for Windows 95 incorporates e-mail into normal business activities, rather than keeping it off on its own. Goldmine representatives have indicated a free Goldmine e-mail client will be available soon, which will be ready to integrate into the commercial system.

Using e-mail as business information
E-mail can live a life of its own, but can easily become part of a company’s business data base. With products like askSam 3.0, you can create fully searchable data bases of e-mail and Web pages. You can search and retrieve any word or phrase in the text. This particular product offers a wide variety of searches, including full text, fuzzy, wildcard, Boolean, proximity, date and numeric. You can reach askSam Systems at 800-800-1997 or 904-584-6590, or on the Internet at http://www.asksam.com.

Conclusion
E-mail software can send messages simply, or provide advanced features to communicate in other languages, provide privacy or better incorporate e-mail into daily business. Which packages are best for your business today?
(Eric Cohen, a CPA, owns Cohen Computer Consulting, which helps growing businesses cope with and benefit from information technology. His home page can be found at http://www.servtech.com/ re/acct.html.)

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