A software package important in the Golden Age of the BBS. The makers of FirstClass have since chosen to focus on corporate customers and have lost ground in the market.

Golden years

FirstClass was the first and most important product of SoftArc Inc., a Toronto-based company that began by making "groupware" for the suburban Scarborough Board of Education in the early 1990s. The easiest way of describing FirstClass was as being "like e-mail, but with communal mailboxes." FirstClass was originally intended as software to run a sort of educational BBS for Scarborough students. In the beginning, it only ran on the Macintosh

What was unusual about FirstClass was that it used a graphical interface -- just like the Mac -- which made it especially easy for newbies to use. If you knew how to use the famously intuitive Mac, you could work out FirstClass in about 5 minutes.

SoftArc added features (newbie-friendly online chatting, for instance), and put together a two-tiered pricing structure: one for corporate customers, and a cheaper one for "hobbyists." Among hobbyists, it spread like wildfire: it removed the technical nonsense from BBSing, leaving only the social interaction. Users had to download the client software and separate "settings files" for each BBS, but the graphical whizbangery and convenience made this worthwhile.

Before long there were literally hundreds of FirstClass BBSes, whose popularity was bolstered by SoftArc's porting of the client software to run on Windows machines. Probably the most significant was MAGIC, based in Toronto, which boasted something like 4,000 users at its peak.

FirstClass was a corporate hotshot, too. SoftArc competed with Microsoft, CE, and Lotus; although it didn't beat them, it showed very strongly against the corporate leviathans whose software was expensive, bloated, and buggy in comparison. FirstClass's "mail-and-more" features were popular in universities (including Emory in Atlanta), high schools, and with companies that depended on elaborate and ongoing feedback with large numbers of people -- media outlets, most notably PBS. Much of the beauty of FirstClass was that it could serve as both an internal e-mail system and a mechanism for interacting with outsiders, while hosting files for download and (because of its graphical nature) showing logos and other corporate identity symbols.

Hobbyist pricing: a double-edged sword

BBS nerds who used FirstClass tended to fall in love with it and evangelize it fiercely at their workplaces. Internal e-mail systems were becoming more popular through the mid-1990s, and if a company planning to install one happened to employ a recreational FirstClass user, he or she could be counted on to insist the the decision-makers at least take a look. SoftArc's corporate sales started to accelerate in the small-business market.

FirstClass won an array of awards, both as an example of really good Macintosh software (demonstrated by its MacUser Eddy awards) and really good networking software.

At the same time, however, more straitlaced IT professionals were spooked by FirstClass's popularity as BBS software, and sometimes couldn't be convinced that BBSing wasn't FirstClass's primary use. SoftArc began to fear that FirstClass wouldn't be taken seriously enough -- that its active encouragement of the hobbyist users would cost more users than it created.

So SoftArc did away with its hobbyist pricing.

The rise of the Internet

It took SoftArc a long time to integrate FirstClass with the Net. Although FirstClass handled e-mail and group conferencing in exemplary fashion, it didn't initially offer any connection to the outside world (except to other FirstClass systems), and it wasn't much use for static content -- most problematically, FirstClass didn't support user-created graphics; the only graphics it could handle were in the settings files. Early on, this had been a strength (users got graphical experiences without constantly heavy downloading over slow modems), it became a liability.

Third parties sold "gateways" that allowed clumsy FTP services, but FirstClass never offered access to the World-Wide Web. SoftArc supplied an Internet e-mail gateway, which worked fine but was expensive for administrators to buy. FirstClass only moved from proprietary data-transfer standards to Internet standards in 1997 -- very late in the game.

FirstClass's appeal to the recreational user started to fall, compared to other services such as America Online or the regular, unmediated Internet. Combined with what the removal of hobbyist pricing did to administrators' interest in supplying FirstClass services (some had managed to keep their systems alive by starting to charge their users for access, but started to have a hard time justifying the fees), this pretty much cashiered FirstClass's legion of volunteer evangelists.

Sales started to slide, and many of SoftArc's employees, who'd fallen in love with FirstClass before they'd known anything about the company, left.

SoftArc was bought out by Alberta-based MC^2 Learning Systems in about 1998, and the new company, called Centrinity, focuses on the education market. It's also experimenting with more generic "messaging," to judge by this clip from a recent press release from http://www.centrinity.com/FirstClass%20News/%2331033595:

Centrinity's award-winning FirstClass Unified Communications technology provides true unified messaging capability by seamlessly integrating all traditional messaging mediums including email, voice mail and fax into one unified mailbox. Users are able to access important data and messages via the BellZinc business Web destination via the device of their choice - anytime, anywhere. In addition users can access their personal email, address book and calendar.

Centrinity seems to be doing pretty well in its niche, but many who remember what potential FirstClass seemed to have in its early years are still a little sad.

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