z3bra, the stripes apart

Plain old mails

04 November, 2013

On my way to meet the default UNIX tools, I ran into a simple one: mail, that was sitting in the corner of my system playing with.. Nothing in fact.
mail is one of that small utilities that have been forgotten and replaced by more "moderns" tools like mutt, alpine or even thunderbird. But it is worth knowing about !

mail can manipulate a mail box in either mbox or Maildir format, and is intelligent enough to know the difference between the two of them.
It can also handle IMAP mail boxes, but for this post, I'll assume you use a local mail directory under $HOME/var/mail/INBOX/

Because we all need that bearded touch, we will use mail as our main mail user agent.

The environment

As any of the standard UNIX tool, mail integrates well in a UNIX environment, and is able to interact with external tools to perform specific action (assume it, you love that huh?).

Here is the set of variable mail is going to use:

And that all ! We will not need more to get a running set up (For more infos, you can check the mail(1) manpage).

So here we go. Make sure those two variables are exported:

$ export MAIL=$HOME/var/mail/INBOX
$ export EDITOR=ed
$ export VISUAL=vim

Now, we will create the most basic directory tree needed by the setup (We will improve it later)

$ tree $HOME/var/mail
    ├── cur
    ├── new
    └── tmp

4 directories, 0 files

Ok, now the mail environment is set up. You can try the mail command at this point, but an empty mail tree will only result in the following message:

No mail for z3bra

For future convenience, copy your /etc/mail.rc to ~/.mailrc, so we will be able to edit it later.

Before continuing with mail, we will take a look at two mail related programs, fdm and msmtp, that we will use to fetch and deliver emails.

Fetching mails

FDM stands for Fetch and Deliver Mails, so it basically get mails from a server, and place them in your local filesystem based on regex rules.
If you want a great tutorial for fdm, check out the FDM Quick start guide. I'll just give you my own (simplified) config file:

action "INBOX"           maildir "%h/var/mail/INBOX"

account "<account-name>"
server "<pop3-server>"
cache "~/var/mail/.cache"
keep # Keeps mails on the server

match all action "INBOX"

FDM can get infos from your ~/.netrc file, which looks like this:

machine <pop3-server>
login <email@domain.tld>
password <password>

check that mail fetching works with fdm -kv fetch. If it works, you could place fdm fetch in your cron entries.

Sending mails

MSMTP is as simple to use as fdm. Check its documentation. Here is a simplified config file:

auth            on

account         <account-name>
user            <email@domain.tld>
from            <email@domain.tld>
host            <stmp-server>
port            25

account default : <account-name>

msmtp will also read your ~/.netrc file to get your password.

by default, mail uses sendmail (guess what it does...). Add the following at the end of your ~/.mailrc:

# use msmtp instead of sendmail
set sendmail="/usr/bin/msmtp"

Writing a new mail

Back to the topic!
Now that tools we are going to interact with are set up, let's write and send out first mail. We will send this mail to ourselves, so let's go like this:

$ mail email@domain.tld
Subject: Testing a new MUA
Here is the top of the mail.
You are actually typing like in ed's insert mode.

To stop typing, just type a dot on its own line

This will send a mail to the given address. Nothing more. Nothing less.
You can give multiple address to send the mail to multiple contacts.

If you need more flexibility (e.g. using your own editor, or input the text dynamically within a script, keep in mind that you can do the following:

$ echo "<E-mail body goes here>" | mail -s "<subject>" <email@domain.tld>
$ vim /tmp/body.txt
$ mail -s "<subject>" <email@domain.tld> < /tmp/body.txt

As you might guess, the -s can be used to specify the subject. There are also -c <CC-field>, -b <BCC-field> for copy/carbon copy, and so on. Just read the manpage for more options.

Reading your mails

To read your mail, it's quite simple. Just type mail to get an output like:

$ mail
mail version v14.4.4.  Type ? for help.
"/home/z3bra/var/mail/INBOX": 4 messages 1 unread
O 1 contact@domain.tld Thu Jan  1 01:00  140/5273  Blah blah, subject
A 2 me@mail.domain.tld Thu Jan  1 01:00   95/5869  RE: Previous subject
A 3 NEWS GROUPS        Thu Jan  1 01:00  222/15606 TR: Check this out!
>U 4   Thu Jan  1 01:00  104/4146 >Testing a new MUA

The ? at the end is a prompt. You can input commands like print <num> to display the content of the mail number "num".
You can use abbreviations for commands: "p" is the same as "print". "e" means "edit", "v" means "visual".

There are A LOT of commands (to delete mails, encrypt/decrypt, copy to folders, manage aliases, ...)

You can even define macros, to make action like, add sender to aliases, mark as read, copy to another folder and delete the current mail.

Today, I discovered mail which does anything I need to manage my e-mails. I'll probably make the switch from mutt on all my machines once I'll be used to it.

This little discovery reminded me that UNIX was and still is a great operating system, regardless of all the tools that have been developped since its birth.

I hope you (re)learnt something with this article. I don't hear about mail that much nowadays, although it's really usable and functionnal. I feel like a pokemon hunter. Aware that there are many, many tools out there, of different forms, with different purpose... I'll probably never use them all. But I'll try!