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Monday, June 4, 2007

Motormail - Not in use anymore - Good idea nonetheless

A communication platform for road users
How http://www.motormail.nl works

By : John K Weber

Once again the promise of new technologies to be learnt, has prompted me to embark on a new project. This project is unlike anything I have ever undertaken as it involves Linux and the underlying operating system plays an important role in it's development.

Calling all licensed vehicles
The main aim of this project is to allow all road users to be able to communicate without having to know anything about the users that they are communicating with. There are many ways to achieve this but I have chosen for the simplest of all. EMAIL. The saying used to be that money makes the world go round. I think that that should be rephrased to email makes the world go round.

In the fraction of the time that it takes to write an email, it gets sent to its destination. It is a very powerful medium that has made its way into the 21 century in no small way. So it is with this in mind that I decided to use email as the underlying medium for communicating with all road users.

Motormail allows any person to send an email to another road user based on their vehicle registration number. As simple as that. Even if the user is not currently registered, the emails are stored and delivered to them as soon as they decide to register.

The mechanics of email are so simple to set up that it is also not as large a project as is assumed when starting out.

Cobalt RAQ 4 server
I have my own Cobalt RAQ 4 server set up in Amsterdam and linked directly to the internet backbone.

The Cobalt RAQ 4 allows the users to set up web sites using a smart web interface. It requires absolutely no experience with Linux which is the operating system or Apache which is the web server of choice. It allows the user to setup emails and web space so easily that it takes around two minutes at the most to set it all up.

Automatic email creation
The main problem is just to create the script that will allow the email accounts to be created on the fly. This is essential so that the user can use their email accounts as soon as they are opened. This script requires in depth knowledge of the Linux operating system and seen as that I have no clue as what is going on I decided to call in the experts.

I have recently purchased a product that would allow me to set up the user accounts on my Cobalt RAQ 4 server and setup the databases etc with minimal effort. It is a sort of shell that works around the user interface set up for the Cobalt server.
Due to the fact that port 81 is closed in most network environments, it is impossible to set the account up without the port 81 being opened. So this product "Auto Setup" allows me to set up the user accounts now using the http port, port 80.

Remote project completion
So I emailed the owner of this product "Richard Kurth" and requested a quotation for the script I needed to create the emails automatically.

How Motormail is set up
The technical glue that keeps it together

Having requested the quotation from Richard Kurth I got a extremely prompt reply saying that it would cost $150 to create the script. I accepted and the next day my script was set up on my server without me having to touch it at all. Excellent, I have just outsourced my first project and by email of all things. So now that I have established that email makes the world go round….

How does the email account get created
So what happens? The user sets up an account by giving a vehicle registration number and a password which allows access to the POP3 email account. He details get stored into a mySQL database and using a Cron tab (scheduling mechanism in Linux) the database is read out and all users that are currently in the database get created one by one.

Once the email account is created the ser may immediately use it to send emails or read emails that may have been posted to the account before it was created.
However there is still one problem. How do the users know when someone is registered or not. I mean it is not really possible to send an email to someone who does not exist. As soon as you send it you will get an email back saying that the user does not exist.

The catchall email account
In order to solve this problem the Cobalt RAQ 4 allows the web administrator to setup a catchall email account over and above the email accounts that are already setup. This entails setting up an account that will catch all emails sent to a domain name.

This is a really handy solution because now anybody can send an email to any registration number at motormail and it will get sent to the catch all account.

A loop to beat all loops
I then have a program called RSVP that runs in the background on a system attached to the internet using ADSL and running on Windows. This RSVP program costs around $40 dollars and is probably the easiest program to use when it comes to email processing for Windows.

The program will fetch all emails from the catchall account on the Cobalt RAQ 4 server and will resend them and then delete them. This means that if the account has now been created it will just catch the email or otherwise if it has not yet been created it will be sent back into the catchall email account, only to be resent again in a few minutes. This means that no matter whether you are registered or not at the Motormail site your emails will always be kept and delivered to you after you have registered.

The hardest part is yet to come
Now, of course, this all really means nothing when only a handful of people use this service. So it needs to be marketed.

Of all the things to do when creating any web site, the marketing is the main pain.
It is actually up to word of mouth to make this site work as a large advertising budget is out of the question as the service is mainly free. The only way it can pay for itself is to place a small text advert in each email when it is sent. So the costs have to be kept as low as possible as the users are sick and tired of having banners placed all over the place.

Take Yahoo! for example. It used to be a really great Service but it now has so many adverts that it is nauseating to even look at it. So the advertising which usually pays for all web sites is out the window. As is the small one liner text advert within each email is already bad enough but it is a necessary evil nonetheless.

So what can you do with motormail!
Have you ever been driving down the highway when your dream car which is actually an exotic import zips past you. Wow if only you could chat to that driver and ask a few questions like "where did you actually buy this car?"
An another occasion you drive past this car for sale. The only problem is that the for sale sign has no price or telephone number. It probably does have one but not something you can see before zipping past it. Well now with a bit of training(reading number plates through your rear view mirror) you can actually just note the vehicle registration number (97GXSB) and send an email to 97GXSB@motormail.nl and you will be able to establish a dialogue through emails.

Simple isn't it?
So why don't you register and make it work?
Just browse along to http://www.motormail.nl and set up your very own email account. Just supply your vehicle registration number and a password with which to login to the site to read and write emails and you are A for away.
So who thinks up these great ideas?

Well this one was thought up by Esther Zijlstra from CSC in Bunnik and the work was performed by John K Weber and partly by Richard Kurth in the USA.

I also would like to acknowledge the fact that we are using a very easy to install email client called instantwebmail. This client blended straight into our website without any changes at all to it. As is. This is seldom the case with any web projects. These guys have made a really easy to apply Web Mail client. Check it out at http://instantwebmail.sourceforge.net/

It won't make millions
I can almost guarantee that this site will not make millions, however it will breach the gap between the members of the public and the road users.
This domain name has already been purchased for most countries by a different party. It has no affiliation with our site at all.

What next?
I am currently still busy with a remote weather station, which will be able to send all status messages via SMS to a ground station which is also online at all times and available for research. There will be more of this project in the near future. Keep your eyes open for any other interesting ideas and you may always send them through to me at johnkweber@yahoo.com - JKW