The mail client we know and love has a long history. It was written from scratch for NeXTSTEP, the operating system created by NeXT Inc, a company Steve Jobs founded in 1985 and which was bought up by Apple in 1996.
Known as NeXTMail or simply Mail.app, it was a powerful and fully-featured program, more powerful than its descendant Mail 2.0 in some ways, although less powerful in others.
The importance of NeXTMail for OS X’s Mail.app is clear at once from a screenshot of NeXTMail’s interface:
Read on to take a look at Apple Mail in its early years, see what it could do, and hear what some people remember about using it.
Steve Job’s welcome email shows that NeXTMail contains all the basics of the Mail 2.0 interface — message list and preview windows, toolbar, sophisticated treatment of graphics and full support for RTF. In fact, it predated MIME, the international standard that governs virtually all email communication today, and was based on a message format of its own. Don Yacktman remembers that for all its beauty, communication with the outside world could be awkward: “If you didn’t have NeXTMail yourself and got a rich message, it was pretty obnoxious. (Rich messages were sent as an RTFD file that was tarred up, compressed, and uuencoded — .tar.Z.uu)”.
NeXTMail on the NeXTSTEP Workspace shows the origin of more Mail 2.0 features:
Here you see LipService and X-faces in action (see more below), the free-floating NeXTSTEP app-specific menu in the top left, the likwise free-floating mailbox list, and the NeXTSTEP Address Book. (Note too the “Father of the Dock” in the top right of the screen).
Some NeXTMail preference panes give a further sense of the app’s abilities:
Surprisingly, especially in a world where software bloat is all too common, some of the things that NeXTMail could do are missing from Mail 2.0. John Kheit lists three of them:
- LipService (this was a system wide service that was part of the app/sound kit (today’s Cocoa)). Click a lips icon (next to compose icon) and talk into the built in mic. It records and adds your recording as an attachment. The attachment is an icon of a pair of lips (see the first screenshot above). Click on it and play.
- Read receipt ability. The ability to set receive and read receipts. The ability to send receipts or purposefully not send them (via a hidden pref setting).
- Plug-in architecture that allowed for mailfaces. It set up a universal database and ability to have mail icons from anyone that wanted to participate.
Developers have tried to replace these missing features — iSay and MailVoiceClip for LipService, MailPriority for read receipts (doesn’t work in Tiger), MailPictures for X-images-URL and pictures of senders not in your Address Book — but the decision to remove them in the first place is puzzling.
Despite this, Don Yacktman points out that (some) things have changed for the better:
On the whole, I really like what Mail.app can do these days. Don’t forget that it can also do a lot of things the original Mail.app never did. The anti-spam and filtering features are huge improvements. NeXTMail also had fewer options for connecting to mail servers, no ability for multiple .sig files, piss-poor message quoting abilities (needed plugins to make it bearable) and so on. On the whole, while a few NeXTMail features may be missing, what we have in OS X today is much, much better. That is not to say that there isn’t plenty of room for improvement, though. Apple should keep making it better. And I think it is hugely annoying that Apple isn’t yet supporting an official API for plugin writers.
With thanks to John Kheit and Don Yacktman, who answered queries, offered pointers and opinions and provided some of the screenshots.
Hawk Wings is interested in the Prehistory of Apple Mail and welcomes any reminiscences, opinions or information on the journey from NeXTMail to Mail 2.0.3. Got some?
- Steve Jobs shows off NeXTSTEP, NeXTMail
- AppleScript to send a return receipt in Mail.app
- Hawk Wings Addon and Plugin List Update: 10 new entries
- Sending SMS messages with Address Book
- OPENSTEP: The Prehistory of Mail.app plugins
Tags: Address Book, Apple Mail, history, history of apple mail, mail.app, NeXTMail, NeXTSTEP, return receipts, x-faces