I hate software!

[Note: This column has generated more letters than any other I've written. Check 'em out on the Letters to the Editor page. Bottom line: It appears that there is no "fix" for this problem. The ISP has disabled relaying, and that's that. They generally do this as an anti-spam measure, albeit a largely futile one. That's what "Serv.net" told me when I first described this problem to them. So if you're having the same problem, the only remedy I can see is to complain to your ISP -- not the mail-server provider. ...ed.]

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona, November 22 -- The problem with today's software is that it's too smart, yet too dumb. Every new version of Windows (and each of the application programs that run under it) does more things for you -- yet it also removes you further and further from the computer itself; from what you're actually doing.

Back in the DOS days, every application was an island -- each program didn't know what other programs were installed on the system. DOS itself didn't have any central repository of what was installed, either. To install a program, you just created a directory on the C: drive, then put a floppy disk into the A: drive and typed COPY A:*.* to copy its contents onto the hard disk.

Windows translates the request and sends it where it needs to go. This is all well and good -- until something gets broken.

Usually, every program had its own device drivers, for whatever hardware it needed to use. Word processors had printer drivers. Communications programs had their own independent ways of talking to serial ports. Terminal emulation programs had their own ways of talking to video cards. Programs were all nice and self-contained.

I'll handle that! Or will I?

It's not like that anymore. Windows, in an attempt to be more efficient, says, "Just let me know what device you want to talk to, and what you want to say, and I'll translate the request and send it where it needs to go." This is all well and good -- until something gets broken.

Here at Kafalas.com, we do customer support by e-mail for a small part of a big publishing company's Web site. Meg works on her Macintosh, and I work on my Wintel machine -- or, that is, I worked on my Wintel machine, until a few months ago, when it mysteriously forgot how to communicate with a particular server -- let's call it cust.serv.net (the name has been changed for the sake of security). My e-mail address was jkafalas@cust.serv.net -- and for about a year and a half, I had no problem sending and receiving messages with that address, using Netscape Communicator 4.02's Messenger module.

Then, one day, I merrily downloaded the day's e-mail and wrote a reply to my first message.

When I clicked the "Send" button, the machine sat there for about a minute, then replied, "Operation timed out. Server may be unavailable," or something to that effect.

I tried it again -- same result. Well, okay, I figured -- maybe the server crashed during the past few minutes. I logged out of my ISP and gave up for the day.

That was last July. To make a long story short, I've never been able to send a message -- from my machine -- as jkafalas@cust.serv.net since then.

Are you being served?

At first, I thought it might be a server problem. So I called up the customer support guy at serv.net and described the problem to him. He checked to make sure the server was up, then guided me through checking my settings in Netscape Communicator. When everything checked out on my end, he suggested changing the SMTP server setting to use the numeric IP address instead of cust.serv.net, just in case that was causing a problem for some reason. No dice -- Netscape still couldn't find the server (when it wanted to send -- it had, and still has, no problem receiving mail from that server).

OK, I thought, maybe it's some kind of obscure Netscape problem -- Netscape may have got broken somehow. Reinstalling might help. It just so happens I have a CD-ROM with Netscape 4.02 on it, for which I paid the princely sum of $58.00 or so, back before Netscape started giving the software away free. So I reinstalled.

Still no better. I thought, well, maybe if I tried a different e-mail program altogether, that might work. I tried the Internet Mail program that came with Windows 95 (since superseded by Outlook Express under Win98 -- but I'm getting ahead of myself). Same behavior.

Being stubborn by nature, I still thought trying another e-mail program might magically fix the problem. So I went out and got a copy of Eudora Pro. I spent some time familiarizing myself with the program, then set up a "personality" for jkafalas@cust.serv.net, as well as one for my POP3 address on my ISP.

E-mail roach motel: Messages check in, but they don't check out

Eudora didn't do the trick. As before, I was unable to send mail as jkafalas@cust.serv.net. Eudora worked like a champ with my POP3 address on my ISP, however -- just as Netscape and Internet Mail had. (By the way, if you're thinking of suggesting that I use the mail server at my ISP and simply put "jkafalas@cust.serv.net" as the "Reply-To" address, I tried that -- and the server at my ISP responded with a message saying, "Relaying denied." Most ISPs don't allow relaying these days, in an attempt to control the flood of spam that permeates the Internet.)

I'd deduced that the problem wasn't on the server end because I created a Eudora "personality" on Meg's Macintosh for jkafalas@cust.serv.net, and it worked fine -- I could (and still can) send and receive to my heart's content. Conversely, though, when I set up a personality for Meg's address (mkafalas@cust.serv.net) on my machine, it exhibits the same behavior as with my address -- receive, but no send. For some reason, it just doesn't like cust.serv.net as an SMTP server.

[Note, added 9/17/2000: Meg uses a different ISP from mine. I now believe that this is why I was able to send messages from her machine but not from mine. Her ISP has not disabled relaying, while mine has. The problem appears to be with the ISP, not the client machine... ed.]

After awhile, I began to suspect that some lower-level thing had been broken when the system crashed at some point. Numerous times, I'd had to reboot the system the inelegant way -- with the on/off switch -- and some open file, deep in the bowels of Windows 95, got corrupted. This, I theorized, rendered Windows (and each of the e-mail programs I've tried) incapable of sending an outgoing message through cust.serv.net, while still perfectly capable of finding that server when it came to receiving mail.

Or at least that was my suspicion. The customer service guy for cust.serv.net thought it sounded plausible. He suggested reinstalling Windows 95, in case my theory proved correct. However, I couldn't do this, because I didn't have a Windows 95 CD. That's because Compaq, in its infinite wisdom, chose to package my machine (a Presario 1210 laptop) with a "Quick Restore" CD instead. This CD does restore the machine, and it does it quickly; but at the cost of clobbering everything you've put on the disk since you bought it. Obviously, this was not an option.

Why is my system unable to find the server when sending but has no problem receiving mail from the same server?

Much as I hate to put more money in Bill Gates's overflowing pockets, the other day I bit the bullet and bought a copy of the Windows 98 upgrade kit. I reasoned that a new version of the operating system would probably overwrite everything in Windows 95, including whatever file or files had become corrupted, which Windows uses to talk to (or designate) an SMTP server for outgoing mail. Presumably, once I'd installed Windows 98, everything -- including my e-mail programs -- should work fine. I should be able to send mail, once again, as jkafalas@cust.serv.net. Right?

Wrong. After installing Win98, I've found that the problem is still there. It took almost an hour to run the upgrade procedure, and I'm right back where I started. The actual error message I got when I tried sending with Outlook Express yesterday read as follows:

The connection to the server has failed. Account: 'cust.serv.net', Server: 'cust.serv.net', Protocol: SMTP, Port: 25, Secure(SSL): No, Socket Error: 10051, Error Number: 0x800CCC0E

(In fairness to Microsoft, it must be noted that Windows 98 does have its redeeming values. Programs do load and run noticeably faster under Win98 than they did under Win95. Dreamweaver 2, which is a notorious memory hog, used to run excruciatingly slowly under Win95 -- under Win98, it's much better; still slow, but highly bearable. This is a first -- a new software version that actually runs faster than the old one! I also have to admit that some of the new features of 98, like Internet Explorer 5.0's radio plug-in, are pretty cool. I discovered that WHRB, Harvard University's radio station, just became available over the 'net a few days ago. Throughput is high enough these days that the sound is actually pretty good. I'm impressed! I never thought I'd be saying this, because I'm a bit of a troglodyte, who believed for a long time that the 'net should be used primarily as a store-and-forward medium and that those who tried to do things in real-time, like streaming video, audio, or even just Web pages, was wasting bandwidth. Hey, everyone's got the right to change his mind!)

Reward offered

So I throw the question out to my readership in cyberspace. Does anyone have an idea what might be causing my e-mail problem, and how I can fix it? Can my system get over its inability to find cust.serv.net as an SMTP server? Why is it unable to find the server when sending but has no problem receiving mail from the same server?

Anyone providing information leading to a successful resolution of the problem will receive his or her choice of the following prizes:

  1. A round of golf at Elden Hills Golf Club, Flagstaff, Arizona, followed by another round at the Sandtrap (the snack bar at Elden Hills) 
  2. A motorcycle ride to the Grand Canyon on the back of my '72 BMW -- or, if you're a licensed rider, you can ride my '77 Yamaha 650 (I've even got an extra helmet!)
  3. A day's free technical writing or Web design services, courtesy of Kafalas.com

Besides that, you'll receive the satisfaction of knowing you solved a conundrum that stumped yours truly, the customer support guy at cust.serv.net, and the combined braintrust of several Usenet newsgroups, to whom I presented this problem.

Any ideas? If so, please drop me a line!

Copyright © 1999 John J. Kafalas

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