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  • What Ever Happend to Pine

    Pine's History and Evolution

    Today when people hear the word Pine, they automatically think about the Christmas tree, about its meaning and the joy of Christmas. For others, the word PINE brings back memories from "the good old days", the days when Linux and especially the folks at the University of Washington needed a good, easy to use and most important: free mail managing program. Thus, in 1989, Pine was conceived, and its name had nothing to do with the tree, simply because PINE is an abbreviation of the most generic software name: Program for Internet News and E-mail.

    Originally built from the ELM (ELectronicMail) source code, Pine went through constant changes and updates so that it could remain simple to use but it also needed advanced features. And so on April 17, 1991 the 1.0 version was pre-released, having the most basics and advanced functions for that time. Elm source code was also used for other mail clients like: Mutt.

    Like most Unix mailing programs, in its early versions Pine had to choose between Vi and emacs. Both were relatively less user friendly, and so a modified version of emacs was chosen. Pine`s mail composer also came with a stand-alone editor called Pico, simple to use with good help for every single step, unlike vi.

    Over time, with even more changes in the code, Pine was able to support IMAP by removing more and more of its original Elm code. One year later after it's pre-release, Pine 2.0 was released and it source code was open to the public. Of course, the IMAP support was great but Pine needed more features, such as attaching a file to a mail, this meant that Pine needed MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions). With MIME mails could contain binary files (non-text attachments); text in character sets other than ASCII. This meant that files could be moved with ease from a Linux to a PC environment via mail.

    If a desktop mailer was to be useful at UW, it had to have full support access to the remote folders (inbox / saved-message) as well as the local folders. In order to accomplish this, extensions to IMAP were required as well as a new version of the IMAPd server code, and more work on Pine to support multiple collections of folders.

    After another year of hard work of coding focused on making a better and more solid Pine, the first DOS version was almost ready. Since it was desperately needed, and with Pine`s MIME capability, people could easily transfer files like spreadsheets, images and word processing documents through messages. Making Pine work on Dos was difficult because of many reasons, but the main reason was the memory management on DOS. On June 17 1993 Pine had its first major release, version 3.83, with DOS support and with this release it also got the well-known name of "Pine Is Not Elm". Pc-Pine was able to run on a PC with ease even with the annoying DOS problems, but even so, Pine always felt at home in a Linux environment

    With 1996, Pine began to have small popularity issues with licensing and clones. Although until 3.9.1 the license stated that Permission to use, copy, modify, and distribute this software and its documentation for any purpose and without fee to the University of Washington is hereby granted From 3.9.2 the University of Washington changed the license so that they did NOT allow changed or modified versions of Pine to be distributed by anyone other than themselves even if the source code was still available. Having the trademark registered for the Pine name did help UW in this matter.

    Does anyone still use Pine? Terry Newbury Manager at PCI Compliant Hosting states, "Believe it or not we actually have people still using Pine, if we got rid of it, we would definitely lose a number of our old school clients. Take into account how accustom you become to a particular email client, and how different Pine is from what's popular today. If you replaced Outlook or Thunderbird to something totally different, there would still be people wanting to use the method they learned on for 15+ years".

    As a reaction to this issue some developers took the 3.9.1 version and renamed it MANA (Mail and News Agent) in order to avoid any trademark issues and then it was adopted as GNU MANA. Since claims that the University would sue the Free Software Foundation for distributing the modified Pine program, there hasn't been any release of MANA and it's development halted.

    In its lifetime Pine received many rewards and it sent over 29 million new-user messages as of August 2006. To show that the development team cared about their project, Pine offered new users to send a mail to the dev team for a document called "The Secrets of Pine" which was later changed to "Getting the most out of Pine." This document would contain a small guide about using Pine and release-specific information, but for reasons unknown a small percentage of the people who received the document stated that they never heard of Pine and in some cases threatened to take legal action. As a result after the 4.0 release Pine only offered users the opportunity to be counted as an anonymous Pine user.

    As time went on and the software standards quickly increased as more and more people joined the internet and the recent licensing issues, the developers at the University of Washington decided that a rewritten version of Pine is needed, with reorganized source code and support for Unicode while still presenting itself as a fast and solid mail agent for both new or inexperienced users and the power users. This time however, the name had been kept as close to the original as possible while being inspired by Mother Nature, with Mt. Rainier on its logo and also coming awfully close to the recent truth: ALPINE (Alternatively Licensed Program for Internet News and Email).

    Under the version 2 Apache License, Alpine got its first public alpha release in November 2006. Unlike its predecessor which had non-public releases and its modified versions were not allowed to be distributed, Alpine was free to modify and distribute. With shortcut keys for every operation and making the users capable of configuring it within the software without editing configuration files to set it up, Alpine quickly became a very attractive mail agent for new users while still being able to satisfy the code crunching advanced. Protocols like IMAP, SMTP and POP are natively supported but it could only support HTML content as text and could not support composing HTML mail.

    Time passed and the development team responsible for Alpine slowly drifted away and in August 4th 2008 the University of Washington announced that after one more release which will include Web Alpine 2.0 they will step down from development and only act as consultants to integrate modifications from the community. Alpine did not die, its source code had been used for more personalized versions or continuations of the original, Re-Alpine is in a continuation that became famous for the Debian developer distribution.

    Although today most people tend to prefer a more "graphical" mail agent, whether because it has more features or because it`s shinier, some would still return to the old console controlled Pine for the sake of the good old days. New Linux users would also prefer a console based mail agent such as Pine or Alpine to get used to the command line idea or simply to try and understand how to configure programs and how they work. Developers and network administrators can always be found using Alpine or a similar mail agent. These are the power users who can prove with ease that all the clickable shiny buttons in the world cannot be compared to the raw power of the command line. Pine's security is good as it is, but it can be unbreakable in the hand of a good programmer.