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Communications on our system


The main reason for our computer system is to provide the ability to handle communications, information access and information retrieval efficiently and reliably. The need for efficiency implies a high degree of consistency in the handling of communications by whatever mechanism - Snail mail, Email, Fax, WWW etc - and the storage and retrieval of information independent of the creation and transport mechanisms.

A philosophical approach

The statements above have a profound effect on our approach to the system design and implementation and the way we interface to the system. Activities fall into two main classes namely doing something new and - in our bureaucratically oriented world - retrieving something old. In practice most new activities need to refer back to what has gone on before and this is where consistency becomes critical. It is inconvenient to have to use different programs and look in different address books when one sends a Fax or an Email but it is a disaster if one has to look in many different places to find the previous incoming and outgoing communications - the only solution then is integration by paper copies and risking the paralysis which occurs when filing is late, inaccurate, poorly conceived or badly cross referenced.

Some Practical Considerations

High technology is not a solution in itself and the solutions must at least match the performance of a good paper based system in user interface and reliability. In practice that is not a trivial task and few electronic systems can match the ease of use of the classic inverse chronological order paper file for quickly coming up to date on an ongoing series of short communications, in particular when a number of different media - Letters, Fax etc - have been used. It was the ability to store, find and access a wide range of background information in a simple and consistent manner that was the greatest challenge we faced in implementing our system.

Chickens and Eggs

Parts of the system requirements and specification have already been touched on in the page Our computer system which includes the underpinning rationale. There we largely looked at the hardware needed to implement our choices of communication mechanisms. At that time we took a rather conventional approach and considered Letters, Faxes and Email as the most important for outgoing communications and included the WWW only as an incoming source of information rather than for two way communication. Our realisation of the importance of the WWW and our setting up this site came later and is documented in our Diary of the creation of a home page

Hardware Requirements and our Initial Fax facilities

This was conceived of as a system primarily for our own purposes, with the ability to work from home, but not intended to be Networked to other local machines or to act on a dial up Network or as a terminal. A Standard Fax Modem was therefore specified with 28.8 Kbaud operation to allow access to a Service Provider for Internet and Email. The Fax Modem from Electronic Frontiers came with Lite software and as an option the Eclipse Fax software which was seen as an advantage as it offered OCR facilities and Cover sheets. This was installed on an existing machine under Windows 3.11 and provided an adequate stand alone service. It however quickly became clear that there were potential incompatibility problems in that the received faxes were filed in a way which did not allow easy transfer or integration with the standard Windows filing system. Outgoing Faxes were sent via by the common mechanism of a special printer driver which enabled print from any program to be sent by fax. The program contained a non-standard address book for outgoing faxes.

Obtaining the Service Provider for Email and Internet Access.

The next step was choice of a Service Provider for Email and Internet access and the most important choice as, in practice, it is difficult to reverse. Even now, 5 years on we still have a CompuServe Mailbox we check every few weeks and still find people have not updated their address books. We chose Compuserve for a number of reasons at the time and many additional factors justified our initial choice (but it is not where we would start now 5 years have passed!). Compuserve provided a very good and completely stand alone system as the standard access and it allows one to be up and running under Windows 95 with a minimum amount of well documented configuration of the Modem etc. The software was regularly updated and the latest versions could be downloaded or obtained off CDs. Once again though we ended up with a completely independent non compatible filing system and address books.

The First step towards Integrated communications

This was the point where we obtained the new machine with Windows 95 and Microsoft Office. We installed our existing Fax software but in parallel took the opportunity to carry out a relative assessment of the built in Fax Software in Windows 95 - a combination of a Fax-printer driver for sending and Microsoft Exchange for receiving. The Fax-Printer offered all that we had exploited in our previous dedicated software and included an excellent cover sheet editor. The address book was shared with that in Word - an important step forwards. For reception Microsoft Exchange initially gave the impression of being a slight overkill as it seemed to be primarily for Networking leaving one using a fraction of the facilities. Although it has its own separate quick access filing system with In and Out Baskets and a Waste-Bin for Deleted Mail they are completely compatible with the main Filing System and messages can be copied or dragged to a normal folder where they can be read by just clicking on the name.

That conclusion is still true now although Exchange became Messaging and then Outlook 97 and 98. The only problem is that the Fax service is no longer supported in Windows 98 but there are ways round that see Howto install Microsoft Fax Service for Outlook in Windows 98

Compuserve Mail for Microsoft Exchange

At this point we struck lucky and discovered that Compuserve had brought out a new piece of software which we could download free even of connect time charges which in one stroke integrated all other major communications. This miracle software is called "Compuserve Mail for Microsoft Exchange" and it allows us to send messages created in Microsoft Exchange directly or from other Microsoft Office Applications using Compuserve Mail thus providing an integrated mail system. Messages can now be created and processed using a common Filing Cabinet and Address Book and even our old Compuserve Address list - which had built up already to a large data base - can be chosen or the address transferred on a case by case basis. We can even send a message to a mixture of Fax and Email addresses! We can either choose to manually activate sending and receiving of all mail waiting or schedule to check mail at set times or when Exchange is loaded, automatically at turn-on in our case. Using Compuserve also means that we can exchange mail with almost anyone who has an electronic mail address, including Compuserve members directly, Internet Users, X.400 users etc.

Finally - Our Ducks in a Row

Compuserve Mail for Exchange provides the last step to a Common Address Book for Letters, Telephone numbers (which can be autodialed), Faxes and all Email. All Incoming Mail, electronic or fax, ends up in a common In-tray and copies of all Outgoing Mail in a common Sent-tray. A local filing system is still available which we use as "Pending-trays" prior to transfer to a final home.

Installing Compuserve Mail for Microsoft Exchange.

For those readers who are put off by the thought of downloading and installing any new software - have no fears. Compuserve have made it a trivial task. GO CISSOFT (The traffic light button then enter CISSOFT) then double click on Compuserve Mail for Exchange to give you information to read and instructions on the download itself. It does not matter where you put the downloaded program and run it as it self extracts and gives you a Setup Program which puts it all in the correct places - no mucking about with creating folders and UNZIPing files etc. Most of the time installing is the time for the download which can take 20 minutes for the 1.1 Mbyte file - do it at 0600 and save time and money.

Faxing Editable Documents

We have recently become aware of another strength of Exchange - it is possible to send Faxes to other systems running Exchange in an editable format. For example a Word document can be sent as an attachment to a Fax message in a very efficient highly compressed format.

Initial Conclusions - May 1996

All the tools are in place and we have not needed to buy any additional software over that provided in Windows 95 and available free through Compuserve. There is still need for discipline in their use, in sensible naming of documents (which is aided by the ability to use long names), and in proper design of the master filing system. Our Filing system has a classic hierarchical architecture and it's contents are normally accessed through Windows 95 Explorer. Where filing is in error the powerful built-in Search Routines in Windows 95 save the day.

Use of our Web Site

The initial Communications Philosophy did not take into account the use of a Web Site. Our Web Site has now become a fundamental part of our communications and serves as a reference for much of what we do to avoid the reinventing of wheels. When we are asked for documentation, information or help we usually spend the extra time to produce a generalised response and add it to the Web site. This may be a technical question resulting in a new article in the Howto series or a page on Home Winemaking. Pauline's lecture notes and presentation are uploaded rather than xeroxed and posted and the Christmas newsletter is published on the Web site. In other words almost all communication which is, or may in the future need to be, one to many is now routed via the Web site.

Further Developments - Microsoft Outlook 97/98

Exchange did most of what we required but has been extended in Outlook 97 which we obtained as part of an upgrade to Office 97. It uses the same CsMail 'service' with an improved interface which shows when you have replied or forwarded mail, groups mail and allows archiving. It also combines all the convention PIM functions. Using Outlook does not impact on any of the above philosophy - it is a refinement. Outlook 98 takes a further step and implements the HTML Email protocols which allow formatted mail with integral graphics. Outlook 98 is dependent on Internet Explorer 4.0 being installed and was/is available as a free upgrade.

Further Developments - Mobile Comunications

We now have a Toshiba Libretto sub-notebook linked to a Motorola Mobile telephone which duplicates all the above functionality anywhere in the world with GSM phone access and preferably a local Compuserve access number. It is used extensively from our Narrowboat. This is all covered in detail on our page on Mobile Communications

Further Developments - POP3/SMTP Email

Whilst we use CompuServe and Csmail all the above can now be implemented in Exchange/Outlook with any Internet Service Provider (ISP) offering a standard POP3/STMP mail server accessed via a TCP/IP connection. CompuServe now also offer that as an alternative and we have experimented with it. There are pros and cons but the balance is such that we made the change and forwarded all our CompuServe mail to the POP3/STMP server - the advantage being that we can collect Email via Internet cafes or any machine with a TCP/IP link and Email package with minimal reconfiguration when abroad. We expect that to be cheaper than Mobile 'Roaming' charges.

Further Developments - Free Internet services and our own domain

There are now many ISPs offering free internet access with local call rate access and usually multiple POP3/SMTP mail services - our use of them is covered in other places, see our Guide to Selecting an ISP. We now have our own domain name and email on one of them called Freezone and use Freeserve and several others. We now have Outlook set up to collect from multiple ISPs on a single phone connection and CompuServe is only used for Dial Up Access whilst we are overseas.

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Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
Originally written in May 1996
Content last revised: Saturday, 3rd June 2000
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