The Net Goes Postal

But you won't — if you follow these simple rules. Here's how to get special delivery using new email capabilities — without turning your computer into a dead-letter office.

Remember those alerts that made email feel like so much fun: "You've got mail!"? Now that you're getting scores of messages a day, you probably feel like shooting the messenger. The ubiquity of Internet email has brought with it new opportunities; it's also created a whole lot of headaches.

The good news is that electronic messaging has finally grown up. But that only means you have to get smarter about realizing its full potential — sending Web pages and video-embedded notes, tracking discussion threads, adding multiple attachments — while eliminating the flotsam that comes in its wake. Analysts at Forrester Research estimate that in 1996 more than 100 million email messages were churned out each day in the United States alone. By 2005 the daily count may hit 5 billion. (And those numbers only measure personal email traffic; including business email would increase the total exponentially.) If you're not adroit at tracking the hundreds of messages you receive, you'll miss out on critical information.

To help you take control of email and use it to your advantage, I'll walk you through the three biggest Internet email packages on the market, tell you how to leverage them to meet your needs, and offer tips and strategies on running your own electronic post office — without going postal.

Your CyberLife: DisOrganization Man. Your inbox is an Irish stew of spam, cc's, and forwarded messages. And where's that urgent email from the CEO?

Power Tool: Netscape Messenger ($59; free 90-day-trial version available)

Netscape's Navigator has always been a great Web browser, but its email capabilities were singularly lackluster. Now Netscape has fixed that problem with Messenger, the email portion of its all-in-one Communicator package.

Messenger is so easy to use, you don't have to crack the manual. Big, graphic buttons at the top of the screen make sending, receiving, forwarding, and filing email messages a snap. Below the tool bars is a drop-down menu of folders. Select one to view a list of messages in the top half of the screen and individual missives in the bottom half. Messenger helps you to keep tabs on your most pressing messages by letting you sort them according to such criteria as date, subject header, sender, and priority.

Need to track down a lost message? A search function lets you hunt through individual folders or scan all of them at once. It then lists all the files in which the subject heading, the sender's address, or the message itself contains the sought-after word or phrase. Messenger offers a handy threading capability for following online discussions. Just click on the box next to the "Sender" heading, and Messenger reorganizes the original email with replies and counter-replies all grouped together. That way, you don't have to dig through your inbox for the previous "re: re: re:" message. As a side benefit, the software lets you look at newsgroup threads in the same way.

If you're missing the email address of a key contact, Messenger can help you track it down. By using something called Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, you can search for people's email addresses by keying in their names on one of the online directories, such as Bigfoot, Four11, SwitchBoard, or WhoWhere.

Messenger also lets you send and receive entire HTML Web pages. It displays them in the message window, so you don't have to open a browser to retrieve them. If you find a competitor's page on the Net and you think the boss should see it, just type in a quick message, attach the page, and the Big Cheese will get everything in one email — your note and the page, including graphics — without going to the competitor's site. Best of all, you don't need to do any special formatting.

Netscape's email software has one notable drawback: it can't conduct sophisticated filtering, such as automatically filing each outgoing message into the folder of your choice (although it can route incoming messages into particular folders). Then again, Messenger runs on more than a dozen operating systems, including Windows, Macintosh, and Unix.

Coordinates: Netscape Communications, 800-638-7483; home.netscape.com

Your CyberLife: The Multitasker. You're juggling email accounts for your day job, your night job, and the skunk-works project that's become your in-between job.

Power Tool: Outlook Express (free)

Microsoft's copycat approach to managing Internet email has always left the software giant several steps behind Netscape. Until now. Outlook Express, the email software that works with Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 browser, at last offers a full-fledged email package.

Boasting by far the most attractive interface around, Outlook Express has taken the best from Netscape, pared those features down, and added its own little twists. Along the top of the screen are buttons for everyday tasks like composing and receiving email. Along the left side are icons representing email folders. In the top half of the remaining window, you'll find a list of messages from the active folder; below, you can view the selected message.

Like Messenger, Outlook Express lets you file messages into folders by dragging and dropping them. So it's easy to locate digital missives. But unlike the Netscape product, Microsoft's software doesn't allow for easy tracking of message threads.

Nevertheless, Outlook Express has its own strengths. While creating a group file (to copy everyone on a single message) can be a pain in Netscape's product, Microsoft has made it easy to build such a mailing list. Just select "New Group" from the address-book buttons, give the group a name, and then click on entries from your main address list to add members. This makes it a snap to send mass emails.

Outlook Express's address-book "import" function is worth its weight in silicon — and then some: when you upgrade from another email package, you don't have to reenter all those intricate email addresses. Outlook Express even imports addresses from Messenger's and Eudora Pro's address books. Another highlight: Outlook Express manages multiple Internet email accounts. Identify your accounts, and set the program to scour them all at once or separately.

In most other respects, Outlook Express is on a par with Messenger. You can attach multiple files to a single message, and it handles all the major file-attachment formats without imposing restrictions on the size or type of file. And Outlook Express has followed Messenger's lead by letting you view attached HTML Web pages in your message window.

The main pitfall of Outlook Express, though, is that you can't set it to organize all your messages automatically. Sure, you can set filters to copy or move incoming messages to specific folders, but you can't exert control over outgoing missives. Get Eudora Pro if you want that kind of automation. And as we were going to press, Outlook Express was available only for Windows 95 and Windows NT users, with Macintosh and Windows 3.1 versions expected "soon."

Coordinates: Microsoft, 425-882-8080; www.microsoft.com

Your CyberLife: Slave to the Internet. Your inbox is stuffed with dozens of unread emails, and more are arriving every hour.

Power Tool: Eudora Pro 3.03 ($89; free 30-day-trial version available)

For Netizens who need an automated software package that can reduce the deluge of email to a trickle, there's just one choice among the Big Three: Qualcomm Inc.'s Eudora Pro. True, its look and feel is a little old-fashioned, and it doesn't support inline viewing of graphically souped-up Web pages. But Eudora Pro offers more automated control of where messages go, and what happens to them when they get there, than either Messenger or Outlook Express.

By filling out filter dialogue boxes, you can instruct Eudora Pro to do just about anything with incoming and outgoing messages: direct them to a specific folder, delete them, sound an electronic gong when a message arrives from the boss, or reply with canned thank-you messages. Especially appealing is the "redirect" function, which lets you automatically resend misdirected mail to the right person while retaining the original sender's address in the "From" line. This allows the final recipient (a new customer service rep, a department manager) to reply to the sender with the push of a button.

While both Netscape's and Microsoft's email packages simply dump outgoing messages into a single folder, Eudora Pro automatically filters your missives into designated mail-boxes. After you've created a mailbox for, say, Fast Company, you can arrange to have your messages to the editor automatically filed in that box. Creating filters to manage important outgoing messages can take some patience and practice. But if you deal with hundreds of messages a week, as I do, filters will save you many hours in the long run.

Easier to use is a feature that captures the addresses of people who email you. A single command lifts an address from an incoming message and plugs it into your address book. And Eudora Pro lets you keep multiple address books, so when a business contact becomes a personal contact, you can drag and drop the listing from your "company" book to your "@home" book.

In other respects, Eudora Pro behaves much like the Microsoft and Netscape programs. You can send and receive email with multiple attachments of any shape and size, and Eudora Pro recognizes incoming attachments in all the standard file formats. Eudora Pro's built-in spell-checker prevents major gaffes.

On the downside, Eudora Pro hasn't kept up with the integrated features offered by Messenger and Outlook Express. You cannot, for example, view HTML Web pages within the message window, so attachments in that format will arrive in your inbox as a jumble of text, minus graphics.

Still, if you work on a Macintosh or Windows machine and need to handle scores of email messages, Eudora Pro is the way to go. (Unfortunately, it doesn't work on other platforms.) If you're intimidated by all the features and settings, just download the smaller Eudora Light version — it's free — and try it out first.

Coordinates: Qualcomm Inc., 800-238-3672; http://www.eudora.com

John R. Quain jquain@mcimail.com , a contributing editor at Fast Company, appears regularly on the CBS News program "Up to the Minute."

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