Tuesday, September 10, 2013

TFS Internet Gateway: The way to connect commercial mail systems in the mid 90s

TFS Brochure from Australia
Back in the mid-1990s, I was connecting businesses to the Internet. I was selling software to connect people to the Internet. This was back in the day when you had to buy software to connect to the Internet. It was even pre-Windows 95 times. What many people don't remember was that Microsoft wanted to charge extra for software to connect to the Internet. They called the add-on pack Windows 95 Plus Pack. I was selling a software suite called Internet-In-a-Box which competed directly with them. Truth be told, there were free software available to connect people to the Internet but this was early days and you had to have skills (like editing a text file) to setup things correctly. Strange thing was that I was still selling Internet in a Box pretty well even though competing with Microsoft. The Box had more software. Internet In a Box's big brother package, even had a sweet TN3270 terminal emulator. But I found out that people were buying it because the setup was easier and we provided phone support. Try getting that from Microsoft back then.
My boss and I saw the writing on the wall and we started to diversify. We were talking to a lot of companies that were interested in the Internet. But most of them were interested in the Internet as a resource not for communication. It's not like they didn't have e-mail systems. They did have e-mail systems for internal communications but they were built just for that: internal communication. Most of the systems didn't have the optional module of connecting the e-mail system to the Internet.
A little work on the Internet and I found this unique product from Sweden called TFS Gateway. They have been making a living building a system that allowed different commercial e-mail systems to talk to each other. They did this by using the mail system's API or mimiced a remote system via the e-mail system's remote gateway. TFS Gateway converted mail messages into a common format (pseudo X.400) before passing them on to their final destination. It supported Microsoft Mail, Lotus Notes and cc:Mail and Novell GroupWise. What interested me was that TFS Gateway also had a module that connected to Internet mail systems, specifically, an SMTP gateway. A market opened up as more and more companies saw the benefit of Internet mail communications and wanted to connect their systems to the Internet.

TFS Gateway was also way ahead of it's time. It had a module that allowed the e-mail system to be sent to pagers and mobile phones via SMS. It was also possible to send mails via SMS. Carrier support was required but the guys behind TFS Gateway were no slackers. They could build modules to spec in short periods of time. Once, I had an issue with a Japanese multi-national using Microsoft Mail. Apparently, the mail attachments from Japan could not be read. Something to do with the fact that although Microsoft Mail used ASCII, the Japanese version of Microsoft Mail used Unicode or some other form of character encoding. Basically two Microsoft Mail post offices could talk to each other but messages would be mangled. Installing TFS Gateway in between them meant the messages were translating correctly but the attachments wouldn't. I e-mailed the guys in Sweden and they realized that the Japanese version was encoding the attachments in a MIME variant called MIME-J. They e-mailed me a new module the next day and after a file replacement later, the system was working great. I had great confidence the TFS guys would have been able to write a module to support the local carrier's system.
Alas, it was just too early. It was five years before the first BlackBerry phone. Many companies had not yet seen the benefits of Internet e-mail. Commercial e-mail systems later began offering an Internet connectivity module, first for a fee and later for free as an upgrade. Many companies took the jump from Microsoft Mail to Microsoft Exchange just for Internet connectivity. Like many companies that were ahead before it's time, TFS is no longer around. So what's the point? The most valuable takeaway from the experience for me was the demystifying of data interchange. Systems can always be make to talk to each other. It's just a matter of will and some programming.

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