When email was a joy, rather than a chore

This week's Think Retro salutes programs like Outlook Express 5 for Mac OS 9, and the bygone days where email felt like personal letters.

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Sometimes the reason vintage tech looks old is because it’s big and bulky, such as with the PowerBook 1400. Sometimes it’s that it can’t do something that today seems so fundamental to using a computer that for one to lack that ability feels disorientating and peculiar—such as if it doesn’t let you access the internet.

But sometimes, you get that vertiginous feeling that things have changed not because the hardware or the tasks you use a computer have in themselves changed, but rather because everything else has changed around them. 

Today, as a rule, our email inboxes fill up with stuff we don’t want: Emails from companies trying to get us to spend more money, emails from bosses trying to get us to spend more time working, and emails from pharmaceutical wholesalers offering solutions to those who find themselves spent a little sooner than they or their partner(s) might like.

For most of us, these emails have one thing in common: They’re not welcome. They’re no more welcome than the never ending blizzard of junk mail, take-out menus, and circulars that clog up our mailboxes and decimate our forests.

The result is that many of us harbor a low-grade resentment towards our inboxes, and that they’re checked out of duty rather with any expectation that there will be anything nice there waiting for us. (I mean, it does happen, but so does winning the Powerball, technically, but the odds are stacked against you in both cases.)

For many of us too, email is such a ubiquitous part of our modern lives that Mail or Outlook will be set as a login item on our computers, sitting there gulping down spam all day long.

Contrast this, then, to the early days when you first had an email account. For me it wasn’t until the very end of the last century—a sentence which caused me to stare into the middle distance, rocking, for a few minutes before I continued—that I had an email address. Netscape, I think it was, with something like a 10MB inbox, which was accessed purely as webmail.

I have very clear memories, though, of using Outlook Express 5, Microsoft’s email client that was bundled with Mac OS 9. I wonder if the sight (and sound!) of it launching will trigger in you the same jolt of nostalgia as it does in me.

For me, in those days, as for many, I suspect, Outlook wouldn’t be sitting running whenever your Mac was on—you’d launch it specifically to go and write or check for messages. In part, this was because this was still the era of dialup, many were charged for every minute they were connected to the internet, and so you spent most of your time offline, only hooking up when you had a particular task to do. Do you remember how, in Outlook Express, there was a “Send Later” button next to, and with equal prominence as the “Send Now”? You’d write your emails, queue them all up in your outbox, then connect to the internet, send and receive all your messages quickly, and then disconnect again.

And oh, that little clonging arpeggio that let you know you had a new message!

Then—at least in my memory—emails were almost always good and interesting and exciting. I mean, for me, the very fact that someone had sent me a message electronically was exciting in itself, but the contents too were usually lovely. Because at this time I hadn’t yet left education for work, the emails I got and the emails I sent were almost all the digital equivalents of personal letters written between friends. Chatty, supportive, confessional, flirty, introspective, silly, serious, and a hundred other things besides. 

A compose window for a new email in Outlook Express may not look much different to one from Mail today—even if our modern tooltips are a little less delightfully verbose—and if you look at the main inbox view for them both side-by side and squinted a little, again, the basic structures and purposes haven’t changed much. But when I was using Outlook Express, getting an email was a splendid thing, a tiny but significant event in my day—even my week. Today, nearly every email I’ve gotten as I’ve been writing this has just added to my already groaning to-do list, wasted my time, or just made me irritable. 

It’s a small and ultimately futile gesture, but perhaps you might join me in a small act of defiance, something to restore that sense of joy to email: As soon as I’m done here, I’m going to go write an Outlook Express-era-style email to a friend.

Or perhaps—screw it—I get out a notepad and fountain pen and write them a letter. Now that’s vintage tech.

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