It's spring, and here in the Bleeding Edge cave we've experienced one of those seasonal bouts of optimism that nothing - not even the usual chronic hay fever - has been able to discourage.
As we usually do when we're in the grip of this delusion, we looked around for things that weren't broken to fix; for things that were new and complicated with which to replace the old and familiar; for dangerous edges of things to gambol along, blindfolded.
Take, for instance, the hosting of the bleedingedge.com.au domain. That was pretty vital. And the Bleeding Edge e-mail system. What could be more critical than that? Yes, they were working, we reasoned, but were they really working well enough? Couldn't we improve them?
Of course we could. We could shift the host server, change the DNS records, abandon the old protocol that has been reliably bringing us our e-mail for a decade or so, change e-mail clients and, while we were at it, invest in an entirely new domain and host it somewhere else. What else would one do in springtime, when one's nose is running as merrily as any galloper at Flemington?
It wasn't quite as hare-brained as it might look. For the past couple of years we've been having our mail system hosted at a local ISP. It costs us $150, plus a $50 set-up fee, and compared to some of the other places we've looked at, that's relatively cheap.
But recently we've fallen in love with a Web-based e-mail system called Fastmail.FM, a beautifully fast and flexible service that uses a modern mail protocol called IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) instead of that tired old Post Office Protocol (POP) that most e-mail systems are based upon.
The basic Fastmail service is free. It provides a similar but superior service to Hotmail, and one reason you might want to switch from your free Hotmail account to a free Fastmail account is that it appears that Microsoft appears to be about to remove the ability to access your Hotmail mailbox from Outlook Express.
If you send a blank e-mail to email@example.com you will get an automated response that says "Please note that you can only use Microsoft Outlook Express to view your Hotmail messages if you have a Premium Pay service account, such as MSN Extra Storage". That indicates that soon, unless you're paying for Microsoft Outlook or a Premium Pay account, you'll only be able to use a Web interface to manage your Hotmail account.
Fastmail has a service that allows users to automatically migrate messages and addresses from Hotmail accounts at Fastmail.FM/docs/hotmailmigrate.html, but it would be wise to use that before Microsoft changes its Hotmail rules - yet again.
To buy 10MB of extra storage from Microsoft will cost about $US60 ($A110) over three years. At Fastmail, $US4 buys you a lifetime allowance of 10MB.
If you're prepared to spend $US14.95 on a Fastmail membership, you gain access to more powerful features. You can upgrade that to a full account for $US19.95 per year. But for $US39.95 a year you get what's called an Enhanced account, and in springtime the concept of enhancement accelerates the Bleeding Edge pulse rate. The Enhanced account gives you 150MB of mail storage (we could fit thousands of messages in there), 750MB per month of transfers, 1000 messages per hour, a 1000-entry address book, etc.
But one thing in particular went directly to the area of the Bleeding Edge brain that's wired to our bank account. An Enhanced account member can have a domain hosted free at Fastmail.FM. That meant we'd save that $150 a year for providing a home for our Inbox. We'll look at our experiences in domain hosting and management in another column, but even if you don't want to have your own domain, IMAP is worth investigating.
Under IMAP, e-mail is a much more interactive tool than with POP. Most ISPs offer POP because it allows them to get your e-mail off their hands. It's a store-and-forward technology - you might almost call it a pass-the-parcel technology - that allows the ISP to transfer your e-mail on to your PC as soon as you activate your e-mail client. You might opt to leave a copy there for a few days, but most people delete it immediately.
IMAP allows you to manage your e-mail on the server.
While it still allows you to download your inbox to your PC, an IMAP service keeps everything on the central server, allowing you to read it from any computer over the Internet. You can filter your messages and direct them to several folders. You can just download the headers, and leave the body and/or attachments on the server. And if you happen to lose your folders in a crash, you'll find them automatically synchronised next time you connect to the server. Even if you decide to delete a folder and then change your mind, Fastmail.FM can instantly restore it from its backups. It provides the sort of utility that Microsoft Exchange Server offers without the fuss and the substantial fee. In short, it's a much cheaper and safer alternative, in our opinion, to Microsoft's expensive .NET strategy, so long as you make sure that the IMAP service has support - as Fastmail.FM has - for Access Control Lists exchangeadmin.com/Articles/Index.cfm?ArticleID=24138
Fastmail.FM's IMAP is particularly powerful if you've got a broadband connection, but we were pleasantly surprised even when we used it with a dial-up connection.
One of a growing number of IMAP evangelists, Nancy McGough - a former Microsoft employee - keeps a good website on the topic at www.ii.com/internet/messaging/imap/isps
Changing to IMAP does require a bit of study, particularly if you've grown used to POP. Fastmail.FM's FAQs are clear and comprehensive but you should give yourself some time to read through them.
One of the things IMAP and Fastmail give you is the ability to run server-based virus and spam checkers. Fastmail scans with the Kaspersky anti-virus package, and Spam Assassin - something that ought to be standard for every ISP. You have to set up Spam Assassin, but the FAQ gives detailed instructions on how to do that. Basically you apply a threshold - we chose Aggressive - and Spam Assassin applies a header to each message according to its spam rating. You then use FastMail's message filtering to sort the messages with those headers into a "High Spam" folder and a "Low Spam" folder, and check them periodically to make sure it's not picking up legitimate messages.
Switching to IMAP might also force you to review your e-mail client. The Bat!, for instance, which has been a delightful POP ally, has minimal support for IMAP. Outlook Express is slightly better but insists on downloading the entire message, including attachments, rather than showing just the body and letting you decide whether to download the attachments later. Mozilla looks good on our Mac G4, but although we know that others have succeeded in installing it under Windows XP, we haven't yet managed to complete the set-up routine.
Some fascinating possibilities arise with the fact that the new version 7 of our favourite flat-file database, InfoSelect (stepup.com.au) supports IMAP e-mails. We haven't yet tried it, but we'll report on that soon. If you've got a Treo or another Palm OS phone, a little-known Japanese product called PaPi-Mail indicates the power of IMAP for low-bandwidth devices. PocketPC 2002 comes with a basic IMAP client built-in.
The Fastmail FAQ shows you how to set up each client.
If you're a beginner using dial-up connections or laptops needing disconnected (off-line) access, you'll probably find Outlook Express the most simple to live with for a while, despite its shortcomings.
To get the full power of Fastmail.FM, however try FastCheck (fastcheck.org).
This little program can run off a floppy disk and even works through company firewalls, so you can use it anywhere. It tells you immediately if you have a new message in any Fastmail.FM folder and offers to open the relevant folder for you. Enthusiastic users gather at the FastCheck forum (fastcheck.org/phpbb2/index.php) and develop plugins, like the one that has Merlin the wizard pop up and read your new e-mail to you.
When we signed up for Fastmail.FM, it had just completed two-and-a-half years without a serious hiccup. But seconds after we sent off an e-mail message to test the settings of our new domain, we got one of those "no socket" error messages that can completely ruin springtime.
Yes, we'd brought Fastmail.FM to its knees. It lasted just 18 minutes. And the Fastmail team kept its users updated on the Fastmail.FM forum at emaildiscussions.com
It hasn't skipped a beat since, and the Fastmail team is convinced that it was caused by a hard drive crash. Here at Bleeding Edge, we know the truth. It was one of those springtime overdoses of optimism.
Charles Wright's The Edge column appears in Tuesday's Next section.