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In the e-mail realm, call me "Yr Humble Customer"
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

In the e-mail realm, call me "Yr Humble Customer" 

Bit Player for March 8, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

My brother sends me e-mail masquerading as Web pages. He doesn't even know he's doing it.

Someone else sends me e-mail under the name "Preferred Customer." And now and then I hear from a guy who has—I kid you not—a return address of

Ah, how I long for the days when e-mail was e-mail, and setting up your name and address was simple enough to get it right the first time!

The Web-page masquerade is a big pain. Most Internet users hardly know that the fancy new e-mail program they just installed is an evil twin of their Web browser. Unless they intentionally rein it in, this horse of another color will send out every simple e-mail message as a Web page, complete with a colored background and maybe even a few sheep-bleats as audio accompaniment.

OK, I'll admit I'm getting overworked about this. Let me explain.

E-mail used to be text. Just text. You wrote some words and sent them off. Somebody replied and you read it on your screen. A typical e-mail letter used to be easy to write, easy to send, easy to read.

But e-mail has changed. Modern consumer e-mail programs—the ones that are aimed not at the office crowd but at the home user—can send e-mail as HTML-formatted text. HTML is the code used for Web pages. That means your letter arrives looking like it came from AltaVista—if the recipient also has an HTML-equipped e-mail program. (Mine's smart enough to open those Web-drugged letters in my browser, but other e-mail programs have their own mini-browsers built in.)

It also means your Aunt Helen can send you a letter with a background of purple orchids and an audio track featuring 17 swans a swooning. And your brother can send you a letter that looks like it came out of the International School of Typography.

Glump! I'm not a fan of mail that barks or chirps. I don't like letters that require 12 megabytes of Internet Exploder to view. I just like to read what people write to me. Maybe that's because I'm a writer, or maybe I'm just old fashioned. The World Wide Web isn't even old enough to get out of diapers, but I'm already pining for the good old days of regular e-mail.

I'll agree that there's a place for HTML mail. It's a wonderful way to send real Web pages, for one thing. I have a lot of pages on my site I'd love to send to folks by e-mail, if I had the time. (I don't.) And I'd be crazy if I didn't admit that HTML mail will become the standard method someday soon. Curmudgeons will always be able to send text all by itself, but the rest of the world will merrily mail Web pages back and forth as if there were no other way to do it. That quick note to the dean of student affairs you send today will end up as a 5-megabyte multimedia extravaganza two years from now.

Such is life. But my other vexation doesn't need to happen, now or ever. I'm not blaming the users. I'm faulting the folks who create e-mail programs. Every e-mail program ought to be written so that it refuses to send out mail with a default return address. You can imagine how easy it is for Joe and Jane Q. Public to install their e-mail software, type in their mail server address and then send off a dozen notes to their friends—all of which list them as because they didn't fill out a form hidden under a half-dozen other windows.

As for my friend with the "Preferred Customer" e-mail name, I'm not quite sure if that's a gag or not. I thought it was, but the other day, as I watched one of Microsoft's behemoth suites slowly come up on my office PC, I saw in horror that I was not really me at all; I was "Preferred Customer."

Ah, the power of modern marketing! I'm … I'm … your humble servant, P.C.

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