Interview: Robert Novitskey and Evan Goldring- by Tim Walker

Like me, decent OS/2 PM-based e-mail clients have only just arrived on the Internet. The round-up of graphical e-mail apps in issue 6 of OS/2 e-Zine! indicates that the OS/2 community now has access to the features other platforms have boasted for years -- but it wasn't that long ago that we had to grit our teeth and use Eudora (or whatever it was we used when we discovered how awful UltiMail was).

Judging by BMT Micro's Hot Software Chart, PMMail 1.5, from SouthSide Software, is among the most popular of this new generation of OS/2 e-mail clients. I'll come clean right away and point out that I'm a registered user; indeed, it was released shortly before I got connected to the Internet at the end of April, thus proving to be a case of perfect timing.

I recently corresponded with SouthSide's main men, BoB and Icon (aka Robert Novitskey and Evan Goldring), while they were putting the finishing touches on PMMail 1.51 (which has now been released to the public) and... well, enough of my prattling, see for yourselves!

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OS/2 e-Zine! : The bio in PMMail 1.5 seems to say you both lead pretty full lives. How do you fit in writing great OS/2 Internet apps at the same time?

BoB: First of all, we have very understanding girlfriends (thanks Jennifer). Secondly, we don't sleep much. That about sums it all up. A lot of the people that live in my dorm asked me if the PM in PMMail stood for 'P.M.' as in nighttime. I guess they figured since we mostly wrote it at night... that was the most appropriate name.

Evan: Hmmm... We covered the understanding girlfriend thing (thanks Zoe), which is important because both of these things are long-term. I have to admit, I've had to give up some of the luxuries in life... like sleep. It doesn't hurt to have mastered the 25 hour day either. :)

BoB: Yeah, it just basically seems like we fit it in. If I have an extra 25 minutes before class, then 25 more minutes of work gets done that day. It's that simple. Unfortunately, sometimes class takes an extra 3 hours which means code doesn't get written, e-mail doesn't get answered, and a lot of frustration sets in. It's really a shame, but I won't compromise my education... it'll be over in three months anyway. (Side note, BoB and Evan get their M.S. AND B.S. in December)

OS/2 e-Zine! : How did you two meet up?

BoB: It's kinda strange... I had received the DOS 6.0 beta in '93. This was before I saw the light of OS/2. Icon (Evan's nickname) heard that I got it through a friend of ours. He asked if he could stop by and see the beta running. When he stopped by my dorm room, we just shot the breeze and began talking about computers, college life, women, etc.

After that, we just started hanging out a lot. We kept in contact over the summer of '93 (the summer after our freshman year) discussing writing an internet phone-ish type of program for OS/2. It was to be called No-Phone. We started work on it and thought up a company name. We originally settled on Shafted Software. This was because we always seemed to have a dark cloud over our heads and we "got shafted" a lot.

We never finished No-Phone, but instead got internships with AT&T (formerly NCR). During that summer, I decided there was no good e-mail client for my personal use, so I decided to write one and PMMail 1.0 was born. I showed it at an OS/2 users group here in the Cleveland area and people said, "I'd pay you money for that." So, I decided to clean up the software and choose a more professional company name. And the rest is history.

Evan: BoB got it about right. I came to college thinking, "I'm going to meet some guys that know a lot about computers." However, it took a while to find someone that really impressed me. Like BoB said, it wasn't until much later into our freshmen year that we met up. We had a lot more in common then just computers, so we hung out a lot. We always wanted our own company. We didn't really know that PMMail was going to be a big hit.

While he was working on PMMail, I was busy writing what I liked best, screen savers. I was working on a scripting language for writing screen savers. Needless to say, it never saw the light of day. BoB really took off with GUI programming, while I continued to work on learning how to program heavy algorithms in C. During the coding of 1.0, I just fielded a few late night, "why is this crashing, I've tried everything" phone calls from BoB. I then got very involved with my fraternity, and served as its president while PMMail took off. When we discussed the 1.5 release, that is when we really began working together 50/50 professionally.

OS/2 e-Zine! : Did your present team working arrangement just come into being of its own accord, or did you plan it?

BoB: It came into being of its own accord. Evan and I think a lot alike and often know what the other is thinking. It's very easy to work that way. We used to try to get summer jobs working at the same place (so we could work on PMMail and the like). We would always tell prospective employers: "If you hire Evan and I it's like getting 3 people for the price of 2".

Evan: Hmmm... that sounds about right. We have been in about 35 classes together throughout undergraduate and graduate school. By Sophomore year, we were working on everything together, labs, homework, etc. We have been lab partners a lot, and that is when we realized that we were both very good in different areas, so we exploited that and produced some good code for school. BoB could turn the rough algorithms that I would write into solid user-friendly programs. That is how we split into GUI and GUTS. When it came time to do 1.5, we saw the natural split, he would do the user interface, and I would work on the algorithmic intensive MIME engine, parsing routines, etc. It came to the point where he would say, I need function X to take these parameters, and then tell me such and such information, and vice versa, and we could always produce for one another.

OS/2 e-Zine! : What made you begin work on PMMail in the first place? Was it a perceived lack of a decent PM-based OS/2 e-mail client, or something else?

BoB: It originally started as a small project for myself. I didn't know "C" (PMMail 1.5 is approx. 80,000 lines of "C" code) and I hated firing up windows to read my mail, so I learned "C" to write PMMail, and vice versa. It only became a business venture due to feedback early on.

Evan: How else were we going to learn how to program a GUI operating system! Seriously, we knew that we could write it, so we tried.

OS/2 e-Zine! : What compiler, authoring tools, etc. did you use to create PMMail?

BoB: PMMail 1.0-1.1 were written using Borland C++ 1.0 for OS/2. Version 1.5 was written with IBM Visual Age C++. It's funny... we actually wrote 1.5 twice. The first time we wrote it in C++ using IBM's Open Class Libraries. Those libraries were so slow and buggy that we couldn't finish the product. Actually we could have finished it, but I wasn't proud of it in that state, so in December 1995 we made the executive decision to rewrite the whole product from scratch. All the controls (square buttons, split windows, tabbed notebooks, status bars and toolbars) are home-brewed. We used no custom libraries. I think extra DLL's just slow down program load time, so I try to do the most I can with the compiler and the API.

Evan: For a long time, believe it or not, I was stuck on DOS. Since my code didn't rely on OS/2, I wrote 100% ANSI compatible code under my all time favorite compiler, Quick C (from Microsoft) v2.5. All the code always clean compiled under OS/2. Since I was doing some "hairy" things like a lot of file I/O, and memory-intensive routines, I wanted to use DOS for a very important reason: when I crashed the machine, it didn't take long to reboot. Also, I had limited memory at my disposal, which forced me to keep my code tight and not hog memory. This kept the encoding/decoding algorithms fast.

Everything is home brew, not just the GUI. We wrote our own UU, MIME, QP, and BinHex encoding and decoding routines from scratch. That way, we don't rely on any third party programs for internal message processing.

OS/2 e-Zine! : Are there any other e-mail clients, for OS/2 or other platforms, which you look at and say, "We'll make PMMail match that"?

BoB: I liked the interface of Exchange, but not the guts of it... MAPI slows it down a lot. We wanted to get rid of as many layers of abstraction as possible. We realized that Eudora had a large market share, so the feature set there was obviously important. Therefore, PMMail is a meld of those two with a bit of our own flash. By "our own flash" I mean things like the RMB address book, and RMB URL exploring. Most of those ideas came from just using the product and saying, "I wish it did that..." That's how most of the really cool features got in there. We really focused on speed and stability above all else though, so to say we "matched" something is only skin deep. It's the implementation that matters.

Evan: I more saw what I didn't like, than what I did like initially. I guess that is a lot easier to see. From 1.1 to 1.5, we knew MIME was one of the most important features, which most mailers had at that time. I used POPMail for DOS for a long time and, since it wasn't slowed down by heavy graphics, it was really fast (that's why I used it). So, we really wanted to try and keep that element of speed. That is where implementation comes into play.

OS/2 e-Zine! : What are your views on the OS/2 e-mail market, now that PMMail in its various forms has been out over a year?

BoB: The market has really made PMMail a better product. I met Nick Knight about a year ago and he has made an impressive offering to the OS/2 community which really raised the bar for us. It's still a small market though. No big commercial company has come out with the killer e-mail app yet. We're hoping we might be able to do that with PMMail 2.0.

Evan: Well, there really wasn't one intially. Like BoB Mentioned, MR/2 was an impressive offering. It was a very new and big twist on the UI aspect of a mail client. From my standpoint, I used it as a speed benchmark for a while. I know a great number of people that run OS/2 with a windows based e-mail package, so I'm glad there are OS/2 native choices out there.

BoB: After all...it's all about choices. If there aren't lots of choices [BoB tries to pull other OS/2 developers into the ring] OS/2 will die.

OS/2 e-Zine! : Have you been overwhelmed, satisfied, disappointed (etc.) at how PMMail has been taken up?

BoB: I'd say I'm satisfied. I'm overwhelmed with its market penetration considering that it's a shareware product.

Evan: Very overwhelmed with its market share and how it has spread all over the world. I think it's great to see people from all over the world use it. I guess that is what you have to expect with the Internet, but you still don't expect to get e-mail from someone half way around the world when you live in the States telling you how much they like the product. I've gotten e-mail from just about everywhere you could imagine. You really get the big picture with how important the Internet is world wide, not just in the States.

OS/2 e-Zine! : Can you tell at this stage how many users of PMMail 1.5 are new, and how many are upgrading from early versions?

Evan: I'd say about half and half at this point, which is what I expected. I think the number of internet users has doubled in the last year, so we have about twice as many new users. We can really only tell officially by the number of registrations, but I know that is a very limited sampling considering how many people I have seen or heard about using the product. I know that many more people at least tried out 1.5 than 1.1. Just due to the sheer increase in volume of e-mail that 1.5 has generated.

BoB: That's probably about right, but then there are also the few people who have registered both. I get a few letters that say, "Here's $10 or $25... I felt guilty getting a completely new e-mail program for free." I thought that was pretty cool. It's not the money that I liked, it's more that they considered all the 4 a.m. nights when I squeezed programming time in after a lab report instead of sleeping.

Evan: It's usually other programmers that write the best letters. I like hearing from another programmer that some code we wrote is fast, or that the UI was "well thought out". That is the ultimate compliment, when another programmer acknowledges your work.

OS/2 e-Zine! : Does the knowledge you're providing high-quality OS/2 applications make up for the less remunerative nature of the market? (In other words: are you in this for love or money?)

Evan: Like we said at first, PMMail would have been created no matter what. Definitely the love. We really didn't expect many users other then the small circle of friends that were, at that time, jumping on the OS/2 2.1 bandwagon.

BoB: Amen to that. I never knew that money could be made on a shareware app. I started out as a chemistry major. Then I took a (mandatory) course in PASCAL programming. It (the way of thinking about programming) came way easily to me. I was a computer engineer from that point on.

OS/2 e-Zine! : Do you aim your product at the OS/2 market as a whole, or at certain sectors? (E.g. users of the IAK, homes, businesses...)

Evan: Hmmm... We definitely don't plan for anyone specific to use the product. Our target market would be OS/2 users. Our goal is to have something that anyone can use. We figure that if a company is going to be running it, it better be easy enough to use for the least technical person to be able to use it quickly and easily, and for the heavy users to have the functionality and feature set they might require.

BoB: Hey, like I said, we think alike... I'd have to admit, though, by sheer volume of copies in use, it's split about 75% home users and 25% business users. I'd like to push into the business market. That is where you start to be able to change the way your product is used and viewed, because it gets such exposure from company to company. Some of our corporate users tell stories like this: "IBM came and showed OS/2 to our company. We told them we liked it, but the e-mail package that comes with it is not up to par with the rest of the system. Then the IBM'er opened PMMail and said, 'Now let me show you what mail program I use.'" That is the best advertisement in the world.

OS/2 e-Zine! : Any other apps in the pipeline, such as an IRC client?

Evan: Heh, heh... funny you should ask! BoB and I have always been the type to write a small app to do a specific task if we couldn't already do it with what we had. So, now, when we come across an application that doesn't do what we need, we think about writing one ourselves.

BoB: Well PMINews is coming along. It's an On/Off-line USENET news client. Anybody who likes the look and feel of PMMail will like this. We adapted the same interface. It should be out in November/December. As well, we are getting some suggestions from or corporate users to do a Win32 version of PMMail, which we are investigating. In addition, we had planned to do an FTP client, but we're waiting to see how Merlin handles FTP. It's rumored to appear in the WPS. Other than that, there are just pipe dreams (a la No-Phone). In all seriousness, any apps will most definitely be useful network related apps.

OS/2 e-Zine! : Ok, how about some more general questions? Are you looking forward to Merlin? Are you beta testers?

BoB: Yes, I'm a beta tester. I am looking forward to the UI part of Merlin, but I had hopes for greater ease of configuration, with an obvious emphasis on the networking area. I just really like how easy it is to set up networking on Win95. It should be that easy on OS/2. OS/2 is the most stable, reliable OS on the planet, but what needs to be done is to make it ACCESSIBLE. Make it easy to use. It's nice to have the pop-up help and such, but instead of putting a coating on the problem, how about getting to the root of the problem and making it easier to use in general. That is what will make the general population flock to it and give it a long life. Let's keep in mind though, this is a beta, so all these comments are kind of tongue-in-cheek until it's finally released.

OS/2 e-Zine! : Will Merlin change the way you work on your apps, especially with the proposed new Internet tools (FTP desktop folders, cc:Mail or Notes:Mail client)?

BoB: It's too hard a question to answer. When I heard about Ultimail, I thought, "Oh great, I'm dead." And then I saw it. It wasn't nearly as nice as it appeared on paper. None of those features are in the Merlin beta yet, so we'll just have to see.

Evan: As far the FTP goes, we actually had a few pieces of UI code done, as well as working FTP client prototypes. We were in the midst of discussing how best to do the UI and how best to integrate PMFtp with PMMail, but we're gonna wait and see how easy integration with Merlin's FTP is. So for now, we're gonna focus on News until Merlin is released.

OS/2 e-Zine! : If SouthSide was in charge of the entire Merlin project, what would you add, emphasise, leave out, etc. in the finished product?

BoB: I would add glue to bind all the parts of OS/2 together. When installing Warp Connect, it's painfully obvious that you are installing several distinct products (Base OS, Networking, BonusPak). Just glue the whole OS together and pretty it up. That will give it mass market appeal. That is what will make it survive. Also multiple input queues are needed badly. There's not too much I would leave out. The voice stuff needs some work, but it's very cool technology and I'm sure it'll be fixed up before the release.

Evan: Yeah, I agree fully. There's a lot more I could say, but it'd get pretty tangential. It would end up being one of those debates about what's an OS and what's an application. We'll just have to see what IBM does with this one.

BoB (laughing): I hope for our business's sake IBM doesn't drop the ball.

OS/2 e-Zine! : Finally, one for Evan: are your music tastes as staggeringly diverse as Bob's? (Note to reader: Read the bio in PMMail 1.5->Help->About, and the question will make more sense!)

Evan: (with VH1's 8-track flashback on the TV behind him, and The Who's Tommy playing simultaneously out of the Stereo) I am the hugest Donovan fan ever. I finally got to see him in concert. I really like the era [1965-1977]. When I started driving, I always got the car after my mom, who never turned the radio down. Well, being the lazy 16 year old kid, I never turned it off. I really got to like her oldies station. Now, you'll mainly see anything from 1964-1977 in my CD player. I still deny that any music from the 80's really existed. Music seemed to have lost its folkie story telling roots. I listen to music for the lyrics more so than the instrumental aspect. BoB definitely beats my 16 CD collection (of which about 11 are Donovan).

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Tim Walker is a 23-year-old non-programmer, living near London, UK, working in electronic publishing and running Warp at home... which marks him out as a pretty unusual OS/2 user. His golden ambition is to create a Web home page on a topic no-one has thought of before -- anyone else like the Penguin Cafe Orchestra?

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