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Pine was originally conceived in 1989 as a simple, easy-to-use mailer for administrative staff at the University of Washington in Seattle. This constituency had previously been using a very nice mail system derived from UCLA's "Ben" mailer for the MVS operating system, but when the cost of maintaining our MVS system became prohibitive, we needed to find a Unix-based mailer that preserved the user-interface strengths of "Ben." Our goal was to provide a mailer that naive users could use without fear of making mistakes. We wanted to cater to users who were less interested in learning the mechanics of using electronic mail than in doing their jobs; users who perhaps had some computer anxiety. We felt the way to do this was to have a system that didn't do surprising things and provided immediate feedback on each operation; a mailer that had a limited set of carefully-selected functions.
At that time, we could not find any Unix mailer (commercial or freely available) that met our requirements. Consequently, we reluctantly concluded that we would need to develop our own. The Elm mailer seemed like a reasonable starting point since its source code was freely available, so we started modifying it. Today there is virtually no Elm code left, and Pine has evolved so that many "power-user" features may be (optionally) enabled. We have tried to remain true to our original simplicity and ease-of-use goals by providing optional features for sophisticated users. In fact, if none of Pine's options are enabled, the latest version has almost the same look-and-feel as the very first version.
One of the greatest problems with most mailers on Unix systems is the editor. One can normally choose between emacs and vi. We experimented with some versions of emacs and settled on a hacked version of micro emacs. Eventually it became heavily modified and tightly integrated with the rest of Pine. One of the main features of having a tightly coupled editor is that it can guide the user through editing the header of the message, and Pine takes great care to do this. A very simple and efficient interface to the Unix spell command was also added. The emacsstyle key bindings were retained, though most of the other wild and wonderful emacs functions were not. The Pine composition editor is also available as a very simple stand alone editor named pico.
Also working at the University of Washington is the original author of the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP). IMAP is a functional superset of POP, and provides a way to manipulate mailboxes on remote servers as if they were local. Specific advantages of IMAP over POP include: support for inbox access from multiple computers, access to more than one remote folder, selective access to MIME message parts, and support for disconnected operation.
Not long after the Pine project began, the IMAP author had finished writing the "c-client" library as an interface to IMAP and as a switch between drivers for IMAP mailboxes, Berkeley mail files and Tenex mail files. In time, "c-client" became a full messaging API with support for RFC-822 parsing, MIME parsing and decoding, SMTP and NNTP drivers, and so forth. Great care was taken to make the code writing the mail files robust against disks filling up, and inter-process locking in order to guarantee mail file consistency. It was clear that Pine would benefit greatly from using the c-client to access mail storage so the original low-level Elm code was replaced by calls to c-client library routines. Consequently Pine can write and access a variety of different mail file formats and new ones can be added by creating a simple driver. In addition the c-client does a very careful job of doing all the RFC 822 header parsing and achieves the highest compliance with the RFC.
Most of the work done on Pine from 6/92 to 6/93 focused on changes needed to support a truly distributed electronic messaging environment (e.g. remote folder manipulation), and getting Pine to run on DOS (which was a lot of work). The first version of PC-Pine (3.84) was released in July 1993, and included first steps toward integrating news and email access in Pine. Doing the DOS port was very difficult for a variety of reasons, but especially because of DOS memory management (or lack thereof). However, simply porting Pine 3.07 to DOS was not sufficient. For a desktop mailer such as PC-Pine to be useful at UW, it was necessary to fully support access to existing remote saved-message folders, as well as local (desktop) folders -- and of course, the remote INBOX. Accomplishing this required extensions to IMAP, a new version of the IMAPd server code, and extensive work in Pine to support multiple collections of folders.
The principal reason for porting Unix Pine to DOS was to obviate the need for PC users to transfer files between their PC and the Unix system running Pine. Now it is possible to save messages directly to the PC's filesystem, and to directly include PC files in outgoing messages. And with Pine's MIME capability, binary files (e.g. word processing documents, spreadsheets, image files, executables) may be directly attached to your messages.
With Pine 3.90, significant new functionality has been added, notably aggregate operations for manipulating groups of messages at once, the first (alpha) release of PC-Pine for the Winsock network interface standard, and greatly improved Usenet (News) support. One of the early interpretations of the name "Pine" was "Pine Is No-longer Elm"; today a "Program for Internet News and Email" seems more apropos. Laurence Lundblade (Pine author emeritus) has more insight into the issue of what "Pine" really stands for.
For details on feature additions in successive Pine versions, see Pine Release Chronology & Version Changes.
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