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www4mail: A Bit of Web-For-Email History

By simply sending an email to any public www4mail server, you can view fully functional Web pages (with or without graphics), access online databases, and utilize other Web-based information resources. This class of online service directly addresses the problem of the "digital divide" by providing vital and equal access to the wealth of Web information to Internet users in countries where full connectivity is not widespread or is cost prohibitive.

While the Internet revolution quickly continues to expand, there remains a large community of users who only have access to email. This can be because Internet Service Providers do not offer full Internet connections (due to inadequate infrastructure and low-bandwidth lines) or the users simply cannot afford to pay for full Internet capabilities. Many of these users live in remote areas of less-developed countries and rely on email not only for interpersonal communication, but also to access essential medical, business, and news information.

A recent survey by Nua Internet Surveys indicates that the total amount of connected people today is about 513.41 million, broken down in the following approximate percentages:

1% in the Middle East

1% in Africa

5% in Latin America

28% in Asia/Pacific

30% in Europe

35% in the USA and Canada

About the same total number of people worldwide have disabilities that are impacted by inaccessible software design. For example, regarding telecommunications infrastructure within Africa, the number of dialup Internet subscribers last year passed the one million mark and the total international Internet bandwidth reached over 1 Gbs (according to www3.sn.apc.org/Africa). A growing number of African countries have points of presence (POPs) in secondary towns, and some have local call charges for all calls to the Internet regardless of distance. In this context, the HealthNet approach has proven to be a realistic solution.

For some years now, in order to overcome insufficient or nonexistent, basic telecommunication services in the region, the HealthNet network system maintains a low-orbit satellite connection, simple mobile terminals (that may be powered by solar panels), and telephone-based computer networks. Computers relay email messages to and from each point in the network, much as a local post office collects and distributes surface mail.

Despite this lack of broad and unlimited access in remote areas, there is still a plethora of creative and diverse content that scientists, artists, and people in general can share over the Internet. Indeed, an important lesson in recent years is that high-bandwidth access to the Internet is not essential for bridging the technological divide. To some extent, the exchange and transfer of knowledge and technology is possible using only email.

In this series of three discrete InformIT articles, we shall introduce our experiences and the history behind www4mail, which we have been developing and maintaining since August 1998. www4mail is an open software application licensed under the GNU Public License and it is for non-profit use only (otherwise you can contact us for details). Some technicalities and www4mail optimization are discussed in Part II and specific examples and performance using www4mail conclude Part III of the series.

Origins of www4mail

www4mail originated as a project of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. The primary goal of the project was to provide researchers and scientists in developing countries a means of accessing scientific databases, on-line journals, and preprint repositories. During the course of the project, it became apparent that most scientific databases already had a Web interface or were planning on having one. A workable solution appeared to be Web access technology — specifically, Web access via email.

Investigations of early, freely available versions of other Web-to-email software (see www.www4mail.org for a complete list) revealed the following:

  • They essentially presented a text version of the HTML page.

  • They were more cumbersome for users, in that they did not allow the activation of further requests to the server from within a received Web page.

  • There were many constraints related to support for dynamic content such as forms, JavaScript, and cookies. The use of tables and frames also caused numerous problems.

  • Support for accessing binary files was limited to ftp.

A key idea in implementing www4mail was to preserve as much of the layout of a Web page as possible — as written by the page author. With this in mind, the focus of the www4mail project then became how to transport HTTP/HTML requests via email, while the presentation was left to a Web browser working in offline mode to view retrieved Web pages.

The beauty of this approach (HTTP/HTML transportation via email) was that:

  • It allows for maximum interaction between the end user (offline Web browser) and the HTTP server.

  • It scales well in the sense that new HTML tags and standards can be transported to the user, who then only requires a browser upgrade.

  • It delivers pages and binary files using MIME or UUENCODE, which means the user can use any email client that supports MIME or UUENCODING.

A www4mail server is then conceptually a tool to perform bridging between email and HTTP. As such, there is support for Web resource updates, Web queries, filling out HTML forms, and other information transactions between the user and the online resource.

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