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Embryonic E-mail

Another dream product that became a reality in 1985 was an electronic mail system (EMS) that ran on NetWare.

From the earliest days when LANs were still in embryo, SuperSet, Craig, and others had ruminated on how the new LAN technology might be used. There were many answers to the question “What is it good for?” including sharing of peripheral devices, lowering costs, etc. But the most exciting application by far was the idea of distributed processing, where various users dispersed across a network can distribute parts of a job and work as a team to create a single project. To achieve distributed processing (which was as much a change in how people worked together as in the way they used computers), users would have to be able to share common databases via the LAN. Being a good platform for this was the goal of SFT NetWare.

Users would also need to be able to talk to each other via electronic mail (now universally called e-mail).

Among the powerbrokers at Novell—at this time Ray, SuperSet, Harry, Dave Owen, and Craig—everyone agreed that adding an electronic mail system to NetWare was a good marketing strategy. The idea of a paperless office was a hot one in the computer industry that year, even in corporate MIS departments. E-mail systems were available on host-based networks; they would be even more useful on LANs. Another consideration was relative ease of design. Here was a popular application that could be simply and cheaply distributed with every LAN sold. It was an easy add-on application that would enhance the functionality of the network.

SuperSet cooked up a NetWare Electronic Mail System (EMS) designed to send messages between workstations on a single network. EMS was a good basic “intercom” style mail system but it lacked features for doing much message processing or for sending messages outside the LAN environment. But it was a start at e-mail, and from February 1985 it was included for free in every shipment of NetWare.

Meanwhile Craig started looking for something better while the engineers dreamed of designing something better.

The Birth of MHS

As time went on, e-mail evolved from a neat add-on into one of a LAN’s important features, which led to friction within Novell that centered around MHS (Message Handling Service).

Engineering wanted to develop an e-mail product, but Craig wanted a mail system that would fit the glue product philosophy—something that would interconnect various e-mail systems.

Craig researched and came up with a product he liked being developed by a company called Action Technologies. Action had developed their e-mail product, The Coordinator, with group dynamics in mind. They had built in an innovative message threading concept and added a superstructure over that threading designed to help people see projects through to completion.

Craig was lukewarm to the message threading, cold on the superstructure, but very hot on the “engine” that did the actual moving of messages from mail server to mail server and from mail server to workstation. What he wanted Action to do was split out that engine and make it another glue product—a standard that would spread through the industry.

Action wanted to work with Novell, but they weren’t as excited about giving away the family jewels as Craig was in getting them. In fact they were much more excited about their innovative work-aiding superstructure than they were about the mundane e-mail engine. This difference in opinion about what was important led to chronic friction between Novell and Action, which escalated to career-breaking crisis in 1989. (For the conclusion of this thrilling story, see “The Action Technologies Contract”, p. 226 in Chapter Eight. See also Action’s mention under “The Tale of the Missing Press Conference”, p. 160.)

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