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WE MUST ADMIT, E-MAIL IS EXCELLENT

We've been saying since 1983 that we don't expect to see the paperless office any sooner than the paperless bathroom. But to chase that elusive goal, a lot of businesses and home users are trying E-mail.

We like it, now that we've got it working. Here's what was in our computer's electronic mail "in-basket" this morning.There was a note from son Joe in Spain about our upcoming trip to Seville. Joe wrote and sent the note during his business hours, while we slept. Frank read it, hit the `1' key to let our E-mail software know he had an answer, typed in two lines, and the E-mail program zapped a reply to Spain faster than a phone call and for a lot less money.

There was a draft of a business plan from Tallahassee-based son Jeff, who wants comments and grammar corrections. Frank put it in Judi's box on our computer network. When she's done, she'll push a button to E-mail back the edited manuscript for the cost of a local phone call.

There were four breathless notes from public relations agents touting review copies of products. We immediately E-mailed back notes saying `No' to one and `Yes' to three.

That's some of what today's E-mail can do. If we could get everybody onto E-mail - and if it worked this well all the time - we might get paperless offices.

But as with most computer solutions, how well it works depends on how good the software is. And E-mail software is still very primitive.

Some people love E-mail anyway. First, it's an easy, fast way to exchange messages with fellow workers - and with anyone else with an E-mail setup that you can reach via computer modem. It can do away with those easy-to-lose pink phone message slips.

Second, it's less frustrating putting a note in someone's electronic "box" than playing telephone tag. And you avoid all those voice messages from folks who aren't at their desks.

Many companies think it speeds up distribution and response to report drafts, meeting notices and staff schedules. That's because it still gets folks' attention. So many companies use E-mail for scheduling, some E-mail software includes scheduling programs.

But E-mail's like every other technological toy. As workers get used to it, it'll slip in priority.

Lots of businesses and home users tried E-mail and chucked it. For one, the software is as tricky as a first-generation word processing program. Nowadays, most of us expect computer tools we can begin using productively within a few days. It also takes too long to send a message.

Messages should take five seconds to transmit after you write them. But it can take up to half a minute getting a written message ready to send to an irregular recipient.

Many offices still use makeshift E-mailing software. A word processor for typing a message. A modem and telecommunications software to send it to a recipient's computer or to an electronic service, like MCI Mail or CompuServe, that they both subscribe to.

If you were using an E-mail program, you could also get four more benefits. First, you could keep an E-mail mailing list tied to a program that automatically sends messages and carbon copies to whomever you check off. (But few E-mail programs yet send messages easily to names that are not on the list.) Second, you could get a `receipt' when your message is successfully delivered.

Third, the software could beep or otherwise alert you when E-mail arrives for you with a `turn-off' switch.

Fourth, the software should comply with Novell's MHS (Message Handling System) E-mail standard. It lets different networks communicate with each other using different E-mail software.

We just tested five popular programs sold for network E-mail management. They're all MHScompatible. They also now issue receipts and alert you when there's E-mail in your box. Most can also send blind carbon copies. But they all need lots of fine-tuning and puttering to get them working to our satisfaction.

Two of the programs just send E-mail: cc:Mail and Microsoft Mail. Higgins and Word Perfect Office do other tasks, too, from a list that includes personal calendar scheduling, meeting scheduling, to-do list tracking, contact management, note-pad memo storage and pop-up calculation.

For small installations, we like Futurus' Right Hand Man best. It does everything on the `extras' list. At $495, it's priced fairly, installs fast and is relatively easy to learn. Its maker is an old-timer. Our big reservation is that mighty Microsoft could decide to take over the E-mail market. In that case, Futurus could get squeezed.

Once you have Microsoft Mail working, it's good for sending E-mail between networked and nonnetworked PCs, Macintoshes, midsized systems such as AS/400, S/38 and S/36 - and huge machines running VM/CMS or PROFS. The software installs easily. It costs $695 for the network server copy plus $395 for each five workstations.

WordPerfect Office takes a long time to install and uses up to four times the disk space of most other E-mail programs. Its technical manual is much bulkier than it ought to be. At $495 for file server software plus $495 for each five workstations, we'd recommend it only for WordPerfect fans.

Enable Software's Higgins is old, dependable and flexible. With add-ons, it can send faxes and link to large and mid-sized computer systems. It's as bulky on disk as WordPerfect Office and installs as slowly. Its $695 base cost seems high to us.