'With reference to your e-mail about

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If you have ever downloaded an e-mail message with an attachment, only to find a mass of unintelligible characters and symbols, you are not alone. Despite its potential as a communications medium, electronic mail is failing to deliver the goods. Paul Gosling tries to find out what's going wrong.

The after-dinner conversation became animated. The smart set were getting angry at something that hurt them to the core. "And I can't even read most of mine any more," said one. Another group of people were talking about their e-mail problems.

Bump into fellow computer users in the pub or a restaurant and there seems to be one recurring topic of conversation. Just why is e-mail such a difficulty these days? Five years ago it seemed to work like clockwork. Nowadays lots of messages come through as gobbledegook.

The explanation, alas, is that there is not just one explanation. It is a complex picture of incompatible operating systems, different software, competing hardware and untrained or over-ambitious users. The result is that instead of getting better, our e-mail communication is getting worse.

"It took more than half a century to set up today's telephone system, and we are assuming that we can have the same quality of Internet communication in three years," says Andy Mulholland, CAP-Gemini's divisional director in charge of technology markets. "We expect to be able to use it anywhere. So it is not surprising that our expectations have run ahead of our capacity."

The killer factor, according to Mulholland, is that we are demanding so much today from our electronic communications that our software and hardware capacities cannot cope. In the past, we were happy with sending and receiving simple text messages. Now we expect to communicate complex files containing photographs and spreadsheets, and assume we can do so without checking that our systems are compatible with those of the people we are e-mailing. Often they are not.

Microsoft shares this analysis. Phil Cross, group marketing manager, business systems, says: "It is down to functionality. In e-mail's simplest form there is no problem in sending simple text. The danger is more with the in-home user market. In business there are common standards such as Mime and Secure Mime." But many home users, says Cross, have failed to obtain the necessary software to decode documents, out of either Mime or the other main encryption system, UU Encode.

This view is shared by John Carroll, consultancy manager at ICL. "Some people still have gateways that deal only with UU Encode, when the rest of the world is using Mime," he explains.

Another potential problem is with the Internet service providers (ISPs). Not all operate the most modern software or hardware available. James Gardiner, corporate communications manager for Demon Internet, says: "A lot of ISPs give access to software which is shareware, which may not be up to date. You can't support Internet use from software that is old, so we have a team that is constantly updating software."

But even this is futile, Gardiner explains, if the customer is running old software, and there is often enormous resistance to constantly updating programmes. A lot of old e-mail software still widely used simply cannot cope with the current communications environment. Another factor is the exponential increase not only in the numbers of e-mails being sent, but also in their length. Making mail servers and operating systems more complex is also a problem. "The fault is with Netscape and Microsoft, who cram in new functions that people don't really need," Gardiner says.

ICL's John Carroll advises users to obtain decoding software available on the Web. Either Transfer Pro, which is purchasable (such as from www.pre press.pps.com), or Wincode, which is free (from www. members.global2000.net/snappy/wincode.html), can be downloaded from the Web, and, Carroll says, in nine out of 10 cases will decode unreadable documents.

But several ISPs and systems managers point a finger of blame at Microsoft for making attachment files too easy to send, when some well-used e-mail software packages cannot read them. Phil Cross says that customers need to realise that just because they can send documents as attachments does not mean they should automatically do so. "It is definitely true that the greater use of attachments is causing difficulties," he says. "People are doing more and more attachments. It is so easy to click on a button and say 'attach this'."

The manager of one university computer system says that things have got worse ever since Microsoft started to muscle into the ISP market. "We have incompatibility problems all the time, particularly from Microsoft sites," he says. "They are fairly new to the e-mail world, and have taken some interesting readings of some of the standards. This has caused us extra problems with the like of attachments and different forms of text. Microsoft is not so good at working with third parties, and Microsoft servers are some of the worst culprits in sending the wrong attachments. Microsoft text files don't go as genuine text-only files."

He says that in nine out of 10 cases where e-mail messages come through as unreadable, the problem stems from attachment files sent from Microsoft customers, or other users of its Outlook systems. His usual advice is to get the e-mailer to send the files again in plain text.

ISPs agree that sending attachment files is one of the big hurdles to transparent electronic communication. But perhaps equally important is that e-mail users should make the effort to convert all files into plain text before they are sent, rather than assume that the receiver's system will be able to read a document in Word, Word Perfect or whatever. Even different versions of the same operating system can cause text to be corrupted.

"I find it so irritating that people send things as Word documents when there was no need to format it," says Cazz Ward, technical manager at Poptel, an ISP. "Then you have to open an application to read it. The big problem is that people don't understand what it means to send things as text files."

One of the other recurring bugbears is the incompatibility of PC and Mac operating systems. Documents can be corrupted when mailed from one system to another.

The advice from CAP-Gemini's Andy Mulholland is to agree in advance the format in which to send documents. "Establish communication with the people you want to send documents to," he says. "Tell them what you are going to send them. Don't treat it as if there is a universal service. Establish the level of service before you send things. If you are going to communicate regularly for supply chain management and so on, then agree EDI-type [electronic data interchange] rules."

This view is endorsed by others, but people should consider more often whether sending something by e-mail is the best way of communicating electronically. Microsoft's Phil Cross says that it is often better to direct people on to a Web page, and let them choose for themselves whether to download a complete file.

"Most of the world's information already exists somewhere as a spreadsheet or a sales report, and e-mails allow people to send that information rather than re-create it as a new file," he says. "But the best thing is to direct people to where they can find what they want, not to send it to them."

Ian Pollard, sales manager at Foobar, another ISP, agrees, especially if the e-mail is going on to a different ISP's network. "You might point someone to a Web page," he says. "E-mail is not the best way of sending binary files. File Transfer Protocol [FTP] is better, putting it on a host server for someone to download. A file gets much larger with binary code."

Others point out that this can cause new problems. Not everyone with e-mail capacity also has Web access. And putting documents on to a host computer creates challenges in guarding access and monitoring the legality of the text placed there.

What is clear is that an industry-wide approach is needed to a problem that is holding back the development of electronic communication. Some point to the need for international acceptance of the ISO standards, which have not been adopted in some countries. Others say that we will just have to wait until Microsoft controls the world's e-mail market, so that we will then have a new, de facto standard.

The alternative solution is more personal. Many of us send and receive e-mail with next to no training, on the assumption that conducting e- mail is simple. But Foobar's Ian Pollard says that if users are going to treat e-mail and the Internet "seriously", then "training is important". Alas, most courses are too expensive for the home user and small business. Making training courses more affordable would at least give us something to do while we wait for the industry to agree on common standards.