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Tips on making e-mail work for you, Part 1
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

Tips on making e-mail work for you, Part 1 

Bit Player for Aug. 10, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

No matter what kind of computer you're using and regardless of which e-mail software you have, you can make life easier and even speed up your mail by following a few simple tips. I'll talk about the biggest tip this week, with others to follow next week.

The Big Kahuna of tips: Avoid attachments whenever possible.

Attachments are files that are sent along with your letter. Sometimes there is no e-mail letter at all—just an attachment. And sometimes the attachment is nothing more than the letter you wrote.

If you're confused, you have a lot of company. No other aspect of e-mail generates more questions and frustration than this one.

Let's back up a little and see how attachments came to be.

Originally, e-mail was just a message. Whatever you could type on a bare computer screen could be sent as e-mail—as long as it was just letters and numbers and a few punctuation marks. In this old method, any e-mail software could communicate across the Internet with any other e-mail software.

Then came the need to send things that weren't messages—that weren't just letters and numbers, in other words. Engineers wanted to send drawings, for example. Space scientists wanted to send images. Later, people like you and me wanted to send pictures of the kids and the latest downloads by e-mail.

And so attachments were born from a need to share more than messages by e-mail. The problem in getting stuff such as pictures and downloads to sail along for the ride when you send a message is a big one: Internet mail services can't send anything except text. (You heard it right. You can't send anything except text through normal Internet mail.)

So the not-so-brilliant solution was to turn all attachments into text. Everything in each file that is to be attached is encoded into letters and numbers. (They're not readable except by computers, of course.)

Because the Internet was based on Unix computers, the main method was termed UUE for "Unix-to-Unix encoding." Mac enthusiasts came up with BinHex (binary hexadecimal encoding), another method. And a newer standard is called MIME, for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions.

Modern e-mail software does the encoding and decoding for you. And that's great, right?

Wrong. First, most users don't even know what an attachment really is, so they don't know when they're using attachments and when they're just sending ordinary text messages. (I'll get back to this shortly.) Second, because there are three main methods, attachments your software encodes might not be decoded properly (if at all) by the e-mail software on the receiving end.

Mac users who send me attachments usually use BinHex. I'm able to decode BinHex, but most PC users probably can't. Old-timers nearly always use UUE (even when they don't realize it), and newcomers probably end up with MIME. Old-time e-mail users—especially if they're stuck with old Unix software at a university—have a devil of a time figuring out what I've sent them because the default in my software is MIME.

If I could know in advance what kind of decoding they could handle, I'd use the right method. But that's usually not possible unless I ask each one. And most don't know anyway.

That's the rub. And that's the first problem. Most of you probably don't know what method your e-mail software uses. (The choice, if there is any—and sometimes there isn't—may be hidden away in a submenu somewhere.) Add to this an even crazier difficulty brought on by the latest e-mail software and you have a conundrum.

That difficulty is a bad habit shown by Netscape's latest e-mail software and the Outlook Express mail program in the Internet Explorer 4.0 beta. Both of them are designed to send e-mail not just as normal text but as Web documents, too—as HTML code, using the Hypertext Markup Language that Web pages use.

Sending an ordinary letter such as "Hello, Mom! Got your check today!" generates a Web page, and that Web page is sent—you guessed it—as an attachment, whether you meant to do it or not. Anyone who does not have an HTML e-mail program will get a normal message along with an attachment. The attachment is the Web page that says the same thing.

This is dumb. Unless you really want to send Web pages each time you send an e-mail letter, look in the setup menus and turn that feature off. I'll bet everyone who receives your e-mail will be glad you did.

(Next week: How to speed up your mail.)

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