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Alternative E-mail Programs

There are two companies in the Pacific Northwest that make e-mail, calendar and planning software. One, based in Redmond, Washington is an enormous public company with thousands of employees and a market value in excess of $270 billion. The other, based in Victoria, British Columbia is a private company with six employees.

The little company, Poco Systems, makes better software than Microsoft.

For the past few weeks I've been testing Poco Mail and Barca, two excellent programs from this tiny company. Poco Mail, $39, is an awesome e-mail program that puts Microsoft's Outlook Express to shame. Barca, $59, like Outlook, goes two steps further by combining e-mail with a calendar and planning module. Barca Pro ($79), which was just released, is designed for business users who want to share their calendars across a network. Also, Mozilla Foundation offers a good free email program called Thunderbird.

Before I get into what's good about these programs, let me say why the world needs alternatives to Microsoft's Outlook and Outlook Express. For one thing, Outlook is big and bloated and has a very slow search function. But the big issue is security. In case you haven't noticed, almost every time you hear about a virus or a Trojan horse being spread by e-mail, the word "Outlook" is associated with the report. That's because most email born viruses spread themselves through the Windows address book that is associated with these two programs. And, when it comes to displaying graphics and formatted text, both Outlook and Outlook Express use the same "engine" that's in Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. Internet Explorer has its own security problems that are capable of running malicious and dangerous software.

Experts debate whether the fault lies in Microsoft's security or just the fact that they're a very popular target for hackers, but whatever the reason, there is almost no question that using Microsoft's e-mail and web browsing software make you more vulnerable. That's one of the main reasons that the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox browser is so popular along with Mozilla's free Thunderbird e-mail program.

Indeed, Thunderbird is an excellent alternative to Outlook Express, but Poco Mail and Barca are even better.

These two programs are incredibly well written with features that beat or rival anything Microsoft has to offer along with a clean and easy to understand user interface. What's more, both programs support a very extensive scripting language that makes it possible for developers and sophisticated users to add features and customize how the program works. But even without scripts, you have a great deal of control over how your mail is handled.

Like Outlook and Thunderbird, you can create filters that route or highlight your mail depending on conditions you set. I've created what I call my VIP list of people and organizations whose mail I can't afford to ignore. When a message comes in from one of these addresses, it's highlighted in red. Mail from financial institutions I deal with is highlighted in green. Filters can also be used to copy or move mail into special folders.

Also like Outlook Poco Mail and Barca have signatures that you can include at the bottom on each message. But these programs also have templates that are a bit more sophisticated. Templates can be used to send "boiler plate" messages such as that are great for people who get email that requires stock answers. These templates can be inserted manually or automated, depending on the incoming message. You could tell people to write to "Info" at yourname.com and have a template with a stock answer sent to them automatically.

It's also possible to associate a script with a filter so that you can perform even more advanced tricks. I have a simple one-line script that automatically sends copies of my outgoing email to my Yahoo e-mail account as an archival backup.

In addition to the email and calendar feature, Barca also has a planner that allows you to block out days or weeks for such activities as vacation, trade show or training. It's not a big deal, but it can be handy.

The program also has a diary and note taking. The diary is basically a mini-word processor for editing and storing ongoing notes. The note taker allows for short notes but has the advantage of allowing you to automatically e-mail a note to someone.

The program has an excellent import and export feature. One thing I liked was the ability to export my address book as an HTML file that can be opened by any web browser,

The search system works great with emails but there is a bug when searching the address book. It only finds the first instance. I got around that exporting my contacts to an HTML file and using a browser to open the file and search.

Also, there isn't an easy to use system to archive old mail. There are ways of doing it, including a script that you can download and install but I'm looking forward to the upcoming version where it will be built in.

The other weakness is that its spam filter isn't that great. It's as good as or better than the one in Outlook, but because Outlook and Outlook Express are so popular, there are some excellent third party spam filters (like Cloudmark's SafetyBar and MalFrontier desktop) that work with those programs. There are some pretty good third party spam filters like MailWasher, that can be configured to work with Poco or any other email program and there are other anti-spam tricks such as using an ISP or web-based e-mail service that filters the spam before it gets to your PC.

Still, despite a few wrinkles, Barca and Poco Mail are excellent programs. Barca is especially attractive because of its integrated features.

You can download a free 45-day trial version of either program at www.pocosystems.com and pay if it suits your needs.

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