The Internet Adventurer
Written by Marco J. Shmerykowsky, P.E.
We live in the age of "suite" software packages where we buy a group of programs from a single vendor for a reasonable price. Since the Internet has achieved widespread popularity, it was just a matter of time before we began seeing "Internet Suites". Netscape was one of the first to strike by combining its web browser with basic E-mail and newsreader capabilities. As the major vendors began to follow Netscape's lead, an industrious shareware author decided to develop a native OS/2 package that eventually became Internet Adventurer.
The creative process which led to the development of Internet Adventurer sounds like a Tim Allen home improvement project. Mr. Kim Rasmussen originally set out to write an Internet Relay Chat client. Upon finishing this client, he decided to examine IBM's WebExplorer API. Once web browsing functionality was added to the "product," Mr. Rasmussen decided to improve the mail client. Once the mail client was up and running, he discovered it wouldn't be too much trouble to add a newsreader. When the dust settled, Internet Adventurer had been constructed.
Upon first starting Internet Adventurer, the user is greeted with a nice splash screen and a burst of music. The addition of a music sound bite to the splash sequence is just the first indication that this is a slightly different product. Once the music finishes, the user is presented with the program's main interface.
The main interface is cleanly organized through the use of a powerful tool bar and the "multi-paged" notebook metaphor common in modern spreadsheets. The tool bar is one of Internet Adventurer's deceptively powerful enhancements. Instead of opting for the standard static tool bar which is available in most Windows and Presentation Manager programs, Mr. Rasmussen provided a customizable tool bar.
Right clicking on the tool bar brings up a context menu which allows a user to create, edit, and delete "buttons". For each button, the user can choose a "function" which ranges from composing a new E-mail message to executing an external program. Each button can be further "customized" by the addition of any icon and description. Finally, the user has the ability to organize the buttons through the use of standard OS/2 "drag&drop" operations and special "spacer icons" which will offset one button from another.
The first page in the notebook is the main navigation page which contains large icons for easy one button access to the news and E-mail clients, the IRC client, command line versions of OS/2's FTP and telnet clients, and the world wide web browser integration functions.
The "ftp button" and "telnet buttons" can be configured through the use of a URL REXX script. This script provides, in an indirect manner, the capability to configure the "Navigate" page to use user defined alternative programs.
The next page contains a "Quicklist" which is organized as a standard OS/2 file tree display. The user has the option of creating "Groups" and "Items" for organizational purposes. Each item can have any standard URL tag associated with it such as "http://", "ftp://", "telnet://", or "mailto://". Internet Adventurer also supports a set of extended URL's such as "mail:" to check for new mail and "news:" to launch the program's newsreader. In general, it offers a flexible way for organizing basic info.
One of Internet Adventurer's unique features is the "WebWatcher" page.
This page allows a user to keep track of the last time a web page was "checked" and the last time the page was "updated". This is especially useful for keeping tabs on web sites which contain useful information but are not updated frequently. Finally, the user can view a particular web page by double clicking the URL. This will in turn launch either Netscape or the program's internal browser. It is important to note that once a web page is launched through Internet Adventurer, then all "mailto" tags in a web page will activate the Internet Adventurer's mail composition window instead of Netscape's mail client. This single feature is indispensable for anyone who needs to keep web based E-mail and "regular" E-mail organized in a central location. It is a feature the competition should be fighting to emulate.
The final page on the main interface is the "Address Book."
Currently, the address book can best be described as a work in progress. The page display shows the name of a user, his E-mail address, and a short description. Additionally, each entry can have a "snail mail" address, a WWW URL, a telnet address, and an IRC nickname associated with it. The address book currently lacks the ability to create address groups and to print entries. Despite all the hype about the "paperless office", I still feel it is important to be able to get all of your painstakingly inputted data onto a non-battery operated piece of paper.
The next important area of Internet Adventurer is the Mail/News window. This area of the program is composed of a separate presentation manager window which is divided into three realizable "sub-windows."
The first sub-window, which is titled the "Groups" window, organizes the a user's E-mail and news into the three categories of "E-mail", "newsgroups", and "custom." The E-mail category supports multiple accounts and separates all messages into "incoming", "outgoing", and "sent" for each account. The newsgroups category follows the same basic organization as the E-mail category. The "custom" category gives the user the ability to organize both E-mail messages and news posts into specially labeled folders. The downside is that the program currently does not support nested folders. Thus, the extent to which a user can organize information within a "custom" folder is somewhat limited. Finally, each listing in the "groups" window contains the total number of stored and unread messages.
The "groups" window also has a secondary page which lists all of the newsgroups available on the current news server. Previous versions of Internet Adventurer listed available newsgroups in a nested tree format and did not have a "search function." The current arrangement has replaced the nested tree with a simple alphabetically sorted list and has added a search function. Although the search function does not support wildcards, it has a sufficient implementation of "substring" matching which only displays the newsgroups which match the search criteria. It quickly eliminates visual clutter. A more flexible search function, however, would be welcome.
The "articles" window contains a listing of all of the messages contained within the currently selected folder. This window has three very user friendly features. First, the user has can customize the interface by selecting the type and order of the data fields which will be displayed. For example, while testing the program I discovered that the "flags", "size in bytes", "subject", "date", and "from" fields provided all of the information I wanted, and as a result I was able to eliminate all of the extraneous information which would have just cluttered the interface. In the age of information overload, this feature is very welcome.
The second pleasing user interface design feature centers on the "viewability" of the data fields. In addition to having the capability to re-size a field by dragging the mouse, the author has added scroll bars. Thus, the user can always read the entire entry on those "odd" messages which do not conform to the standard setup. Although minor, I feel this feature adds a special degree of usability and refinement to the product.
The final important interface enhancement centers on automatic threading. If the appropriate checkbox is selected in the settings dialogue box, then all messages with a common subject will be grouped into an expandable tree. A user can easily track all responses, new and old, to a particular topic. This feature is especially useful when following a Usenet topic to gather information such as whether or not to apply the latest OS/2 Fixpack.
The last sub-window in the mail/news window is the "article viewer/editor". The editor is based on the Kon editor by Bjorn Andersson. The unique aspect of this editor is that in addition to being highly customizable, it supports basic syntax highlighting. Thus E-mail addresses will appear in one color, web addresses in another, and quoted text in yet another color. This can be very helpful when attempting to decipher a message which has been quoted several times. From within the viewer, the user can choose to display the message header, "spawn" a new editor window, or launch a dialogue box which allows for the viewing and saving of file attachments. It should be noted that although a message's header can be displayed, it can't be re-concealed. Furthermore, it seems that the "viewing" portion of the attachment dialogue box does not clean up it's temporary files. For example, if you download 20 sound clips and decide to keep one, you'll still have 20 clips residing on your hard disk. Both issues are minor and do not detract from the general usability of the program.
The program provides the standard message management functionality of copying, moving, deleting, replying, forwarding, and message composition through either a pull-down menu, a context sensitive menu, or accelerator keys. The user can also elect to add the currently selected E-mail address to the address book or to a kill file. Finally, the news articles have the additional function of marking messages for download. Thus, Internet Adventurer first downloads the headers for all the posts in a newsgroup. The user can then select which messages will be fully downloaded. All of the "marked" messages will be retrieved by the execution of a single command. Although this functionality isn't ground breaking, it does appear to be implemented rather smoothly. Finally, Internet Adventurer has the added "management" feature of being able to stop all communication with the server. This is especially handy if you suddenly realize that you're downloading a message with an unwanted, bandwidth hogging multi-megabyte attachment.
A discussion of any E-mail program would not be complete without an examination of its "filtering" capabilities.
The filters in Internet Adventurer are composed of three parts. The first group consists of the "targets" for the filter. The user has the option of filtering incoming/outgoing news posts and incoming/outgoing mail messages. Furthermore, the user can select whether to limit these filters to all or a selected number of the subscribed news groups and E-mail accounts. Although the program currently does not support "manual" filtering, this functionality may be added in the future.
The second group covers the "conditions" of the filter. As in most other programs, the user has the option of selecting between a "simple" search or an "advanced" search. The "simple" search will examine predefined categories such as the header or message body for a complete text string, a substring, a wildcard match, or a case-sensitive text string. The "advanced" search adds the ability to filter based on the presence of attachments, file size, line count, or the number of cross-posts.
The final grouping covers the "actions" which the filter can take on the message. These include standard operations such as executing a REXX script, copying to a folder, deleting the message, or alerting the user. The dialog box has grayed out options for "forward to" and "auto reply". Presumably, these functions will be implemented in the future. In general, the filtering capabilities of Internet Adventurer show promise. Currently they do not seem to have the functionality and scope which is available in packages such as PMMail or MR/2 ICE, but the potential is obviously there. The current capabilities are sufficient for users with "light" filtering needs.
In addition to message management, it is also important to examine a program's message composition capabilities. The basic message composition window follows the multi-paged notebook metaphor which is present in many other areas of the program. A separate page is provide for the "Subject", "To", "CC", "BCC", and "Attachment" fields.
The internal text editor is essentially the same as the "article viewer" in the main mail and news window.
In addition to syntax highlighting, the user has the ability to jump to a line and character position, perform search and replace routines, indent and unindent blocks, toggle and covert text case, and record macros. This last ability appears to be very unique for an E-mail program and should prove to be useful for users who must compose long "repetitive messages".
As was stated at the start of this review, Internet Adventurer began its life as an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) client. The IRC has been likened to the Citizen's Band radio in its function due to its ability to facilitate unrestricted real-time "conversations" between groups of people in various locations. "Discussions" are split across a wide range of channels and cover a variety of topics. For a more detailed look at the operations of IRC, a fairly comprehensive FAQ and resource list can be found at http://www.mirc.co.uk/ircintro. html.
The operation of the IRC client is fairly simple. Upon starting the IRC client from the main navigation window, the user is prompted to choose an IRC server to log into. After selecting a server, the user is automatically switched over to the main IRC window where all the main "status" messages from the server are displayed. The next step is to join a "channel" by selecting either the "join" button or the "channels" on the toolbar.
The "join" button allows the user to select from a customizable list of predefined channels. Furthermore, the user can choose to automatically connect to certain channels upon connection to the IRC server. The "channels" button displays a comprehensive list all of the available channels on a particular server, the number of users on a channel, and the current "discussion topic."
Once a topic is chosen, Internet Adventurer launches a new "window" which is divided into three areas in the same manner as older versions of AutoCAD.
The major portion of the window is occupied with the discussion display which lists everything that is said and typed. The right edge of the window contains a list of currently logged on users. Finally, the bottom edge of the channel window contains a command line where standard IRC commands can be entered. It should be noted that a descriptive listing of available IRC commands is contained with Internet Adventurer's help system.
The final distinctive area of the program is the settings area.
Mr. Rasmussen has placed the settings for the entire application suite within a single multi-paged dialogue box. In addition to basic settings covering issues such as confirmations, color selection, automatic behavior, POP3 settings for mail retrieval, SMTP settings for sending mail, field sorting and viewing, and MIME settings, the settings dialogue contains some "special settings". For example, the current version of Internet Adventurer contains a unique titlebar that can be set to display a scrolling window title and a gradient color shading. Although the "rounded 3D look" adds a nice and distinctive appearance to the program, the same cannot be said for the scrolling window titles. I personally found these moving titles to be very distracting since they seem to attract attention from the current "work point".
The user also has the ability to choose whether files/attachments in E-mail messages and Usenet postings will be viewed using Netscape Navigator, Workplace Shell associations or user defined external programs. These file viewer assignments are defined through a combination of MIME definitions and files extension definitions. Finally, Mr. Rasmussen has taken the time to polish the integration between Internet Adventurer and Navigator. The user has the ability to either start a new session of Netscape or to use the last active instance of the browser for each selected URL. An further example of this polish and attention to detail is the fact that Internet Adventurer checks whether or not OS/2 is using the correct DLL's for the DDE connectivity which allows the program to grab "mailto" tags from Netscape and to send URL's to Netscape. If the correct file is not detected, the program displays a descriptive dialogue box with instructions on how to "fix" the problem.
The last area which deserves comment with regard to this program centers on it's help system. Although Mr. Rasmussen has provided a fairly detailed explanation of how the IRC client works, the rest of the program does not have adequate help. Most sections of the program have no help text at all. Other shareware programs which are run by one-person development teams also seem to suffer from this fate. The developer must often choose between spending time on writing code and writing "fluff". Even though most of the programs features are self-evident, a top of the line program should have an adequate help system.
At present the Internet Adventurer suite is a very well developed product. Mr. Rasmussen, however, has plans to continue to enhance and expand the program. Among the features considered for future addition are:
In conclusion the Internet Adventurer suite of programs is an excellent program which has great potential. The GUI design is clean and direct. The user is never overpowered with too much information even though at times the program has several presentation manager windows opened. Certain areas, such as filter support and the help system, are weak when compared to the capabilities of competing products. These areas, however, can be easily improved through further development. In short, this program can fulfill the needs of all but the most demanding of Internet users.
Internet Adventurer (Version 1.01)