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E-mail attachments made simple, Part 1
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

E-mail attachments made simple, Part 1 

Bit Player for Jan. 18, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

Sending a letter across the Internet is a no-brainer. E-mail is usually simple enough to master the first time you give it a try.

But attachments drive people crazy. Let's see if we can make sense out of one of the biggest mysteries of the Internet.

If you click on a menu and start writing an e-mail letter, you're putting words on your screen. When you're through and you click something else to send it off, the words get sent to the recipient. Although the methods of sending and receiving vary, sending a letter this way is simple.

But trouble walks in the door as soon as you want to send something else _ or, as is often the case, as soon as one of your friends sends YOU something else. To send anything that's not plain old text, every e-mail program uses a method called "attachments.". The term says it all: Anything that's not an ordinary letter is "attached". so that it arrives with the letter.

Attachments work like this: One way or another (we'll get back to this part later) you tell your e-mail software that you want to send something along with your letter. That "something". might be a photo or a sound file, to give two common examples.

Here's the amazing part. Your e-mail program knows that it cannot send anything except text _ keyboard characters, letters and numbers, that kind of thing. So in order to send something that is NOT text, it resorts to a lot of fakery. It turns the photo or the sound file into a text file.

Now bear with me. The text file that results from this hocus-pocus conversion doesn't look like a letter from grandma. It looks like a letter from Mars. But the computer that creates it knows how to read it and turn it back into a photo or sound file.

If you think about this for a minute, you'll see the problem. If the computer that creates the attachment knows how to deal with it, all we're saying is that you can safely send yourself any attachment you want. Big deal, right? How about Aunt Mary? Will her computer know what to do with the photo of Jimmy's graduation you sent to her as an attachment?

Maybe yes, maybe no. It all depends.

If Aunt Mary is using the same kind of operating system (Windows 95, let's say), and uses the same kind of software (Microsoft Internet Mail, for example, the answer is "maybe yes.". If she's got a Mac running Eudora Light and you're using Windows 3.1 running MS Mail, the answer is "maybe no.".

That's because there is no standard way of attaching things. There is no standard method of turning something that is not a plain e-mail letter into a fake e-mail letter. We can clone sheep and send astronauts to the moon, but we can't seem to get the nerds who write software to agree on how to handle attachments.

So the job of getting attachments to work as reliably as possible is left to you and me. Next week we'll see how to do that.

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