The Email Appliance

The story of the MailStation, an information appliance that didn’t do much, really, except send email. That, somehow, makes it even more interesting today.

Today in Tedium: It was not a sure thing that digital convenience would someday fit in our pockets. For quite a long period of time, convenience simply meant a degree of portability mixed with the ability to sit in your La-Z-Boy and … type up an email. And while we could see where things were going, getting everyone on board beyond the early adopters wasn’t going to be easy. This created a need for bridge devices that weren’t quite computers but contained all the parts of a computer presented in a new way. These “information appliances”—effectively toasters for the internet—were built for their given moment, rather than forever. Today’s Tedium talks about one such bridge device, the Cidco MailStation. It does more than you might think. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF comes from a video at a maker space that was testing out a Cidco MailStation. They had a fire extinguisher nearby, because you never know, really. Oh yeah, be sure to check out our sponsor, CreditStacks. ↴

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An image of a MailStation in use, circa 2001. (George Roger Gilbert/Flickr)

Email, and almost nothing else: the tale of the Cidco MailStation

When your goal is to hunt for interesting gadgets, it always helps to be observant. Because you’ll never know when you’ll be put face-to-face with something cool.

Recently, I’ve been having some neck issues, probably because of all the internet I produce and consume on a daily basis. This situation created a few side effects: It led me to get a stand for my laptop, so I now look like a total weirdo in the coffee shop.

Another thing it did was that encourage me to go to my local doctor’s office for a medication a little stronger than ibuprofen—and that put me near a thrift store I had never been to before. Inside that thrift store, I found this thing:

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And that put me in contact with this thing:

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Meet the Cidco Mivo Standard 200, which just celebrated its 20th year of existence. Also sold under another the Cidco MailStation name, it’s a tiny device that is essentially an email appliance. (If the name Cidco sounds familiar to you, you’ve possibly read my piece about the history of Caller ID, which I wrote last month. The MailStation was their pivot.)

You plug its modem into your RJ-11 phone jack, and you can send emails using a lightweight monochrome LCD screen. That’s pretty much the main thing it can do, and from my messing around with it, it seems like it would have been quite good at it. While there were secondary features, such as the ability to pull up news and TV listings and maintain an address book, the email feature was by far the most interesting thing about it.

In fact, a PC Magazine review of the era noted that it was the perfect single-serving email device:

The Cidco MailStation does one thing very well: The device establishes nonthreatening email access for new users. It’s a terrific purchase for anyone who wants to communicate in cyberspace with a single-purpose device.

When it first went on sale, it cost $100, with an additional $100 charge for a year of access—which wasn’t bad for internet access at the time, though this certainly wasn’t a deal. I got this artifact of ’90s tech for $7, which isn’t so bad, considering. It also came with a long phone cable and could use batteries, so you could potentially use it while, for example, sitting in a chair. Later versions even were wireless—using cordless phone technology to allow you to sit anywhere in your house and type up your latest missive.

In many ways, it’s the culmination of decades of trends that I’ve covered in Tedium over the years. Here are just a couple that I can see right off the top:

WebTV. There was a wide belief that some consumers would not want a computer to surf the web, and devices like WebTV heavily focused on catering to this audience—and while the MailStation doesn’t support web browsing, it has a similar approachability to it that seems intended at winning over people who find even Packard Bell a bit scary. Another example that fits into this category is the GameShark modem for the Nintendo 64 that I featured a couple of months ago.

Phone-based teletype machines. The device is essentially an updated version of the teletype machine first developed in the 1970s to allow the Deaf community to use the telephone lines. The Mailstation’s built-in modem also reflects the fact that these devices were also some of the first places dial-up modems were used.

The AlphaSmart. This device bears more than a passing resemblance to this standalone writing device, which was essentially a keyboard with a tiny computer baked in. The AlphaSmart has gained a reputation as a cult writing device, something you could also see happening with the MailStation if it had the right software. Not only are they cheap and portable, they have a fairly large, adjustable screen. Really the only comparative weakness is a lack of USB port.

The landlocked iPhones of 1998. Coming around just after the InfoGear iPhone put a full-fledged computer inside of a handheld phone largely intended for executives, the Mailstation has many of the same inspirations, though one thing it actually does not have is a phone attached.

This is actually a pretty interesting device—and one with a relatively long shelf like, thanks to Cidco’s acquisition by the ISP EarthLink in the early 2000s—though mine was a bit busted when I got it. It seemed like it was in near-mint condition, but I realized after a short period of using it that some of the keys on the bottom row did not work, particularly the space bar. Strange, I thought, until I made the decision to open up the battery compartment on the back. It was an ugly sight.

As you might have guessed, the batteries were not taken out of the device and they corroded out, likely meaning that fixing this device is going to require some soldering.

Bummer. Maybe I wasted my seven bucks after all.

“The MailStation is the latest in a new class of devices I’ve been advocating for years, called information appliances. Unlike a general-purpose PC, which tries to do everything and winds up being way too complex, these appliances are customized for performing only a handful of digital tasks very easily and well.”

— Walt Mossberg, then a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, discussing the value of the information appliance—a type of technology he repeatedly vouched for—in a 1999 review of the MailStation. (The review was largely very positive—the headline called the device “clever”—and focused on the fact that it allowed his mom to easily send emails.) Nearly two decades later, just before he retired, Mossberg noted in a piece for The Verge that his pitch for the information appliance had become a reality in the form of the smartphone. “Today, it seems boring to many tech fans, but the iPhone broke through the last barrier that allowed everybody to do a wide range of tasks on a speedy computer,” Mossberg wrote.

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Could a device this obscure actually be useful in the modern day? Depends on how technical you are

Look, I’m not going to tell you that a Cidco MailStation, essentially a keyboard and a primitive computer with an RJ-11 jack, is going to change the world.

Despite the relative obscurity of the device, it has earned a bit of a developer community around it, mostly on Yahoo Groups (oh wait), in part because, when it comes down to it, it makes for a fairly pure programming tool for the Z80 processor, one of the most widely used processors in the world, a key element of everything from Sega Master Systems to graphing calculators to embedded systems.

As I’ve noted in the past, TI graphing calculators, thanks to their underlying technology, would have made for impressive STEM programming devices, a proto-Raspberry Pi of sorts, had they been marketed to schools in a slightly different way—not as a way to just solve math programs, but to apply them in a programming setting, which has proven to be a major real-world case. In some strange ways, this device does the same thing. It has a modem and a parallel port; it is fairly easy to jailbreak, as the diagnostic mode can be reached with a simple key command. It looks like a modernized version of a Tandy TRS-80 portable computer, which makes sense as the desktop variants of that device used a Z80.

Last spring, a user more technical than I, programmer and OpenBSD developer Joshua Stein, noted that the existence of the Z80 makes it an interesting platform to develop on.

“Since the Z80 is also used in TI calculators and a bunch of old computers like the TRS-80, there are many resources available for learning Z80 assembly,” Stein wrote. “The instruction set is small and easy to understand, especially while reading disassembled code from the MailStation’s factory ROM.”

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A MailStation running a terminal program. (Joshua Stein/via JCS.org)

This means the device is not only fairly portable, it’s programmable in assembly language—and some who have messed on this device have even taken steps to modify the system to support the old-school operating system CP/M. Stein, who chose not to mod his machine, turned it into a terminal that can use the modem to dial up into a variety of bulletin board services—even releasing the code for his terminal app on Github.

Some people might pick up a piece of hardware like this and only see it for its limitations. And admittedly, there are many. Others see possibilities. And those that see the possibilities often stretch what we can do with outdated technologies.

Nintendo, famously, has made a whole lot of money off of this philosophy, put into words by legendary engineer Gunpei Yokoi, who called it Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō, or “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology.” The Z80 is a great example of a “withered technology,” and the original Game Boy, which Yokoi designed, used the Sharp LR35902, a chip that included elements of the Z80 instruction set. But while it was a low-powered processor, it was put into a context where it could do more.

And in the same sense, the MailStation took a withered technology—all the cheap modems and monochrome LCD screens and Z80 chips—and made something new. It was not a device for tech-heads when it was first released; it was a device for their parents.

Now, because it’s obscure and hackable, it’s a device for tech-heads once again.

2008

The year that the Peek, a portable device intended for sending and receiving email and instant messages, was first released. Effectively a Blackberry without the phone, the device is probably the closest thing to a portable version of the MailStation as we’ll ever get, and it got positive reviews from another big tech name—David Pogue of The New York Times. At one point, a version of the Peek was released specifically for Twitter. That item did not get good reviews, and often is described as one of the greatest tech failures of all time..

Admittedly, the Cidco MailStation is far more interesting as a digital novelty in 2020 than as an email client, but even if you don’t reprogram the device to work as a terminal, there’s a chance you might still get it working in its original use case … given some relatively narrow parameters.

About those parameters: They’re very narrow. You’ll likely already have to have a dial-up internet account that you’ve maintained for two decades—a not insignificant cost of around $2,000, if we go off the premise that the service never saw a price cut.

But as I was researching this, I found something interesting: EarthLink, the main company that distributed the device to consumers, has a page on its website that offers service to its customers that use the device, but not the distribution of new ones. From an FAQ:

Please note that EarthLink previously discontinued the sale and provisioning of new MailStation devices and service. Therefore, EarthLink cannot establish MailStation service for new customers, including those who may have purchased a previously owned MailStation device (such as models Mivo 100, Mivo 150, Mivo 200, Mivo 250 and Mivo 350) from a third party. Additionally, EarthLink cannot supply replacement MailStation devices for existing MailStation service and cannot transfer existing MailStation service to a previously owned or “replacement” MailStation device purchased from a third party.

The company explained in recent comments that while the device hasn’t been sold since 2003, the device is still being supported in a limited way. While they’re not offering upgrades and modern email features may not work, if a user can get their device plugged in and dialed into an EarthLink line to send and receive email, it might just work. But it may not survive a future upgrade that the company is planning to its email system.

Long story short, I will not be checking my Gmail through this device anytime soon. But if I can fix the corrosion on the device, there is still a chance it could be made useful, or more interesting than it is.

It has a nice keyboard. It’d be great for writing.

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect added details about whether the MailStation devices will work in the modern day. Tl;dr: They might.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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