Email burgers

I think email is approaching several significant mini-crossroads at present, so I'm going to pen a couple of columns on some of the issues, and where I think we're going further down the rambling road.

A correspondent wrote to me last week aggrieved at my Consulting the oracle column (one of several who did so -- at least it's good to see that someone actually reads this stuff). It happened that he was also a user of my email software, and asked in a footnote why I've never written about email in this column. There are two primary reasons: firstly, I don't want to be accused of pushing my own barrow too much, and it's very difficult for me to resist ranting about Outlook, the product that is single-handedly destroying an entire industry built around email.

Secondly, though, I feel that these days email increasingly exists at the level of fast food -- we take it so much for granted that it has ceased to be very interesting or noteworthy. As an illustration of what I mean, in the early 90s, when email was still "sexy", I used to get so many invitations to speak at conferences that I had to turn many down. In stark contrast with that, it's now more than two years since I've had such an invitation at all: email just isn't interesting enough for people to want to hear about it any more.

Having said all that, I think email is approaching several significant mini-crossroads at present, so I'm going to break my rules and pen a couple of columns on some of the issues, and where I think we're going further down the rambling road.

The first of the "mini-crossroads" I referred to is the transition from text to HTML in mail, and it is this issue I want to smear first with my windy rhetoric. HTML is probably the single largest change email has ever faced, because it dramatically affects the basic functionality of the medium as a whole - an HTML message is typically unreadable unless you have software that can explicitly interpret it. This ups the ante for email developers significantly, because HTML parsing is massively complex on its own, even without considering the basic complexity of handling email. In essence, HTML removes email from the domain of specialist email developers and passes control of it to browser developers, making it nearly impossible for small developers to compete. One net effect of this will be to winnow out many of the smaller players, reducing user choice - although I find myself wondering more and more if end-users actually care whether or not they have any choices.

But what does the user gain from HTML mail? Realistically, very little. Practically all the email passing over the internet on any given day is nothing more than short textual messaging requiring none of the facilities offered by HTML. Given the manner in which practically everyone uses email, I believe this is unlikely to change significantly in the foreseeable future - email is perceived as a quick-and-dirty way to send information, and most people simply don't see the point in wasting time lavishing careful formatting and layout on their email.

The key issue in understanding why HTML mail is such a hot idea is "potential": people like the idea that they could imbed a picture if they wanted, that they could use formatting if the occasion demanded it. There's also the momentum generated by all those copies of Outlook Express preinstalled on peoples' new machines. As a result, HTML mail is a done deal - it is the future, resistance is futile, and we will be assimilated. What's more, I predict that eventually even hardened text-only mail users will become accustomed to it - 10 years from now, anyone unfortunate enough to be reading this column will probably wonder what the big deal was.

Oddly enough, all the recent security issues associated with HTML mail (and they are legion) will most likely end up being nothing much more than a passing footnote in history. It's actually pretty easy to eliminate these problems altogether and I find it appalling that the "major players" have not so far taken any substantial steps to do so.

Scripting and active content have no place in email - there simply isn't a non-spam or non-advertising scenario where they are warranted. Suppressing them is all it takes to bypass all the security problems, trojan horses and viruses that have plagued the email world for the last couple of years.

As an email developer, I accept that the dominance of HTML mail is inevitable and am devoting considerable effort to embracing it. My primary concern is that HTML is too ad-hoc at the moment: it changes at the whim of the browser developers and lacks any genuine standardisation. Still, complaining about this is like complaining about the weather - I can only hope that this situation will improve over time (although I'm not holding my breath).

In my next column, I plan to waste everyone's time by delving in depth into an area about which I am increasingly passionate - email privacy: I believe there's no bigger issue at present, especially in light of the current government's apparent belief that privacy should be illegal.

Watch this space for more.

Harris is the Dunedin-based developer of internet mail software Pegasus Mail. Send email to: David Harris.

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