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E-mail envy

by Ken Gruberman and the AOL Staff

It started as a trickle sometime late last year, but now it has grown to a flood. If something isn't done soon, it could become a tidal wave! I'm talking about the biggest problem computer users complain about today: sending e-mail with files attached to them.

In just the last 2 weeks, I've received over 3 dozen calls and e-mails all saying pretty much the same thing: "I got an e-mail from a friend of mine with a file attached, but when I try to open it, all I see is garbage!" Or worse, "I can't open the file at all. What am I doing wrong?" If this sounds familiar, read on; with just a little understanding you, too, can become an E-mail Expert.

Can't we all justget along?

It would be easy to blame this situation on PC users, as the majority of these complaints come from Mac people receiving mail from PC-using friends. Easy, yes... but not correct. I'm also pleading "mea culpa" as I've done plenty of PC-bashing in the past. That's because it is much harder to get the Windows operating system to correctly encode and send e-mail with attached files than it is on the MacOS. But that doesn't mean these problems don't happen to Mac users; we all know it does. If anything, "e-mail abuse" is on the rise across the entire spectrum of computer users.

The real culprit is the Internet itself. Its "wild and woolly" non-standardized nature goes completely against the safe and ordered world of the Macintosh. But the Net is far older than the Mac (or the PC for that matter) and the bizarre world of "Internet Formats" has been around for decades. Because it's a big world out there, it is a wise choice to learn as much about these formats as possible. Chances are, sooner or later, you're going to have to deal with it, if you're not doing so already.

It would be nice is someone would invent a way for your computer to automatically figure out exactly what platform a message and file was sent from, what encoding scheme was used, and what the nature of the actual file was, but it hasn't happened yet. There are some great utilities on the Mac to help in these situations, but the final decisions will always have to be made by you. As long as it's possible for you to receive things from people using Sun workstations, UNIX boxes, any of 4 flavors of Windows and DOS, and even Wang or DEC Mainframes, you're going to have formatting problems.

So now that we've had a good look at the dark underbelly of the Net, let's figure out what to do about it.

It's as easy as 1, 2, 3

The easiest way to e-mail a file from a Macintosh, and be sure it arrives intact, is to send it to another Mac user. Chances are the file will be attached as a "binary file"; that is, a file that is in the form a Mac can understand. As soon as you start receiving files from other platforms, things get more complicated. In general, there are 3 things you will want to know when dealing with files sent via e-mail:

1. Do you know if compression was used, and if so, what kind?
2. Do you know what method was used to "encode" the file? And lastly,
3. Do you know what software you need to open the file once you receive it?

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