The Letter

Although probably the oldest application on the Internet, e-mail is still a second-rate method of communication.

Despite major advances in Web browsers and their associated add-ins and plug-ins to make your online experience more interesting, e-mail still hasn't fully embraced even the IMAP access method which has been around for ages. Don't even try to send HTML e-mail to someone unless you know they can handle it, and don't bother with rudimentary formatting since most e-mails will end up being forced through a fixed-font filter at some point in their journey between your PC and the destination.

Of course, the reason for all this is that there are no real standards for sending e-mail other than the unbelievably basic SMTP and the equally retarded POP for retrieval. No doubt some of you will already be typing up a tirade telling me all about the existing e-mail standards. Don't bother sending it to me - send it to the software vendors who have steadfastly refused to move off their proprietary platforms. Even though all the vendors can now do "Internet e-mail" it took them an awful long time to get that far, and a lot of them still handle the Net with bolt-on filters and agents.

What we need is the same one-size-fits-all e-mail standards that underlie the rest of the Web, but raised to include basic layout and formatting controls. I don't think we need to be able to e-mail desktop published pages to each other - you can do that with an attachment - but a standard that lets you send an e-mail with the basic formatting that you expect in an application like MS Word would be fine. I am so over typing CAPITALS instead of being able to use bold or italics, and I am also totally over having to paste the contents of a received e-mail into Word so I can overcome the unexpected line-breaks in the original.

The current state of play with regard to e-mail is akin to using Morse Code to converse over the telephone. What we have done is use the power of a gazillion CPUs to mask the fundamental inadequacy of e-mail and turn it into nearly readable text. Of course, there is an army of Internet users who happen to have Outlook Express, which does the best job so far of interpreting whatever weird stuff you receive and making it look something like the original. So I guess they are happy.

What about the rest of us? Should we all just send Bill some money and switch? Too many businesses have already invested real money in some other platform, or even an earlier incarnation of Mr Gate's offerings. Even Bill's own Exchange client and plain Outlook offering don't match Outlook Express, which is free.

If the wired world is going to move its entire e-mail effort to something new, it has to be cheap or free and so much better that nobody minds the change-over pain. Perhaps a very good browser-based system will rise to the surface. We don't even seem able to agree on how to represent the words of the original when we hit "reply with history". For a lot of people it's a simple '>' but for others it can be anything from an indent to a few full stops. Why isn't anybody using colour? There's hardly an e-mail device out there without colour. Even the PDAs have moved away from their black-and-white origins. You'd find it hard not to notice what was new and what was copied from the original if there was a colour change.

Don't even get me started on things like "Out of Office" agents. At least 10 years ago the e-mail system I was using was smart enough to keep a list of people who had already been told of my absence, and not hound them with a daily reminder. This self-generated spam has now reached an even higher level of annoyance since most people have a subscription to one or more e-mail newsletters, which gets a daily response of noise from everyone who is on leave. Sometimes these stupid agents generate an endless loop trying to communicate with a newsletter service. "Daily News from The Standard" arrives. So the agent replies "Fred is Out of the Office". And the list server is confused, "I do not understand 'Fred'. Please send inquiries to" So the agent replies "Fred is Out of the Office." And the list server is still confused, "I do not understand 'Fred'...." You get the idea. Please, just make it stop.

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Ian Yates

PC World
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