Today, you're likely to get email that looks like it came from a print shop, with flowered back grounds, multiple typefaces and embedded photographs.

America Online uses a proprietary format, not standard HTML. If you send formatted mail from AOL to people outside the system, they won't see anything cute and if you send HTML, mail to someone on AOL, they may see gobbledygook.


The people who invented the system weren't worried about fancy formatting, the computers of the 1980's couldn't display different typefaces or graphics.

So when you created a message, you just typed a paragraph and hit the Enter key. It was the electronic equivalent of basic transportation.

Today, you're likely to get email that looks like it came from a print shop, with flowered backgrounds, multiple typefaces and embedded photographs.

Sometimes, email is so *glopped* up that it's hard to tell what the message is. Advertisers love it because they can now send out fully formatted spam.

The problem is that not everybody who gets this kind of e-mail likes it. And not everyone who gets it  uses an e-mail program that can display it.

This issue bothered one of my readers, who send a message asking whether it was better idea to send mail as plain text or as HTML, as it is known in the trade.

Unfortunately, not many people know the difference. Most of us are probably sending formatted HTML email without knowing it, and we're receiving it without knowing that it can, in a few cases, be dangerous. So, here's a little primer on formatting and email etiquette.

HTML stands for hypertext markup language. Markup languages go back to the days of the first computerized typesetters.

They consists of commands inserted in the text of a documents to  tell the typesetter what typefaces to use, how big the type should be, how to create tables and so forth. Many newspapers still use markup to drive their typesetters.

HTML is a markup language created specifically for the World Wide Web, where the typesetter is actually your web browser.

Instead of printing the document, it displays it on your screen as a webpage. HTML also lets webpage authors incorporate graphics and photographs, as well as embedded links to other web pages that you can activate with a mouse click.



Free FireFox browser

Although HTML was originally designed for web browsers, it didn't take long for Microsoft and Netscape to incorporate the same technology in their email programs, so that they could use HTML to display different typefaces and incorporate graphics.

In fact, if you have HTML enabled email, someone can email an entire webpage to you. When you call it up in your email program, it will display exactly the way it looks on the web.

If you're connected to the Internet, when you look at a webpage sent as email, you can also click on a link in the page to launch your web browser and go directly to that destination.

But they are three problems with HTML email.

First, it takes longer to send and receive, and it hogs more disk space (since you have all those commands, plus all the graphics that are downloaded with it when you display it on your screen). This can be a pain on a slow, dial-up connection.

Second, not everyone has a HTML-enabled email program. For example, the version of Lotus Notes we use at work doesn't display HTML email. When I get it, I see the markup language itself, which appears as gobblegook surrounding the contents of the page.

At home I use Microsoft Outlook Express, which creates and displays HTML email. One of the things I do to keep track of what's going on in the industry is have the homepages of several technology news sites sent to me in the mail every day.

But if I try to display that email in Lotus Notes,
it's virtually impossible to read.

The final problem is that HTML email is not as secure as regular email. When you call up HTML email and you're connected to the web, all the little doodads and gadgets that people insert in web pages to track who's reading their email are enabled.

So are nasty little viruses or gotchas that malicious authors can embed in a webpage. these include "pop-up" windows that automatically connect you to an advetiser's website (which may have an "x" rating) whether you want to go there or not.

By default, Outlook and Netscape turn HTML on.
When you send email, you'll be sending some HTML commands along with it, particularly if you decide to set up fancy stationery that uses multiple typefaces or cute graphics.

America Online allows the same kind of fancy trimming , but it uses a proprietary format, not standard HTML. If you send formatted mail from AOL to people outside the system, they won't see anything cute (although AOL does strip out its internal commands).

If you send HTML, mail to someone on AOL,
they may see all the gobbledygook.

You can turn HTML formatting off in Outlook Express and Netscape by telling both programs to send email in plain text only.

You can also tell the programs to respond to plain text email messages with plain text, or to use plain text with particular recipients in your address book.

In Outlook Express, you'll find these settings by selecting Options from the Tools menu and clicking on the Send and Compose Tabs.

With Netscape, select Preferences from the Edit Menu, click on Mail and Newsgroups, and then Formatting.

As you can see, these settings are buried pretty deeply, which is why there's so much unwanted HTML mail floating around.

Unless you want your email to look like fruit salad, you should probably set the default for sending email to plain text, which everybody can read with no problem.

If you contribute to email lists or newsgroups, this is considered good manners, and we all like to be good citizens.---LAT-WP

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