I've been a regular user of MCI's electronic mail service for several years. But new software for both the IBM PC and the Apple Macintosh make the service easier to use, more enjoyable and more powerful.
MCI Mail, which claims to have about 100,000 subscribers, calls itself the nation's new postal service. It can transmit instant electronic messages between subscribers or "paper mail" to almost anyone in the world. It can also be used to send and receive telex messages.
To use the service, your computer must be equipped with a modem and communications software. If you're using a regular communications package--as opposed to one of the new "front-end" programs, which I'll discuss later in this review--you must set up your software to dial a local access number and enter your account name and password. MCI's computer then presents you with a menu of choices including the ability to read incoming mail or create outgoing mail.
To send an "instant letter," which is the least expensive type of message, you simply type your information and MCI's computers route that message into the electronic mailbox of the recipient. That person can read the letter on his or her own computer or print it out. Short messages of up to 400 characters, or bytes, cost only 45 cents. Longer messages cost $1 for each 7,500 characters. There is no charge for receiving messages and reading your mail.
I use MCI daily to exchange instant letters with other subscribers. Many of the publications that I write for are also subscribers, so it's a good way to submit articles. I also use the service to communicate with colleagues throughout the country.
The service can also be used to send paper mail to anyone, even if they don't have a computer. MCI has laser-printing centers in major U.S. cities. For $2, MCI will deposit the letter in the U.S. mail. Because it is printed and mailed near its final destination, it is likely to get there within one or two days. For $8, MCI will guarantee next-day delivery via courier or, for $25, will deliver it within four hours.
The biggest problem with using MCI Mail to send instant letters is that a lot of subscribers don't bother to check their mail. Unless you request a receipt (25 cents extra), you may not ever be aware that your letters have gone unread.
Another problem with MCI Mail, until now, is that you could only send text messages. You couldn't send computer data or program files such as spreadsheets, databases or word processing documents. Even when sending a message, you had very little control over the appearance of your document.
All of that is about to change for IBM PC and Apple Macintosh users. Lotus Express (for the IBM PC) and Desktop Express (for the Macintosh) act as an intermediary between the personal computer and MCI's mainframes. With either of these programs, you no longer interact directly with MCI's computers.
Although the two programs have similar features, they are from different companies. Desktop Express is from Dow Jones, and Lotus Express is from Lotus Development Corp. MCI will provide telephone support to the users of both programs. Lotus Express is available now for $100. Desktop Express will be available in June for $149.
With either program, you do all your work "off-line" and let the software worry about communicating with MCI's mainframe. As an added--and potentially very significant--benefit, both programs make it possible to send "binary" files so that you can now exchange programs and data with other MCI subscribers. This can be very useful in sending spreadsheets, word processing documents and databases. The person on the other end can then make revisions or use it as part of another data file. The ability to exchange "live" documents is a breakthrough in electronic mail.
Users of Desktop Express are also able to exchange visual images via MCI Mail. The program comes with a feature called "glue" that allows any Macintosh software program to "print" a file to the disk rather than to paper. Then, using Desktop Express, you can mail that image to another MCI subscriber. The recipient will be able to view or print out the file, even if he or she doesn't have a copy of the software program that created it. This makes it possible to send documents that include both graphics and text.
You'll also be able to send a printed copy of that image to anyone with a postal address. MCI's laser-printing centers will have Apple LaserWriters to handle the output from any Macintosh program.
Unlike the regular MCI paper mail, Desktop Express users will have complete control over what their documents will look like. You can use your own letterhead and logo or even include photographs, if you have a way of scanning them into your computer. This will be a boon to companies that need to send out time-sensitive material such as newsletters and product descriptions. It's the coming together of two of the computer industry's hottest new areas--desktop publishing and desktop communications.