Tony's Rantings, Ravings and Droolings

Useless Attachments

I wanted to discuss something about email attachments that probably a lot of you have not thought about. It is one of those things that falls into the "netiquette" category. ("Netiquette" being the etiquette of on-line interactions.)

Very often, people's default behavior when they want to send emai of some text is to start of Micro$oft's Word software. They then save the file and will send the content via email. Because Micro$oft tries to maintain complete control everything you do with your computer, the format that this file is in can only be reliably read by Micro$oft's products. This means that to send this file via email one needs to send it as an attachment since email is an open-standard that is all text-based (somehow Micro$oft missed the opportunity to define an email format they could charge people for.)

This is a very unfriendly thing to do for two major reasons:

  1. If the word document only contains textual information and there is no required formatting, then the amount of data that gets send is orders of magnitude for what it should be.
  2. It assumes the recipient has also been willing to pay Micro$oft for a service (word processing) which is freely available from other sources.

If you only need to send text, and the recipient (e.g., someone like me) does not want to support an illegal monopoly (i.e., Micros$oft), then I receive an email I cannot immediately read, requiring me to expend a bunch of effort: not a very friendly thing.

Further, when I do get to open the email, I usually find just plain text. Email is designed to send plain text, so what you are doing is starting with plain text (when you type), then convert it to MS Word's format (when you save the file), then convert it into a mime-attachment, then send a whole lot of bytes across a whole bunch of networks. Then I receive the email, have to decode the attachment, then convert from Micro$oft's format to something I can view. This is convoluted, wasteful and takes a lot of my time. Had you simply typed the text and sent it, it goes through no conversions and I can immediately see the email.

As an example, a recent email I received as a Word document contained 386 characters of information (about 19 lines of text). The amount of data that needed to be sent was 19,968 characters. This means that 98% of the data sent was useless. This is an interesting statistic because it matches exactly the fact that 98% of all Mico$oft's products consist of useless features.

When a person only uses Micro$oft's products, all of these issues become invisible, since Micro$oft's philosophy is to hide everything from the user. Thus, many people never realize how wasteful and inconsiderate their actions are. Micro$oft let's all of the steps in conversion happen transparently because they decided to design their software making everything as easy to use as possible. However, it is this same mechanism (a security design flaw) that has resulted in the spread of computer viruses and worms. Although their design means you get insulated from the mechanics of what the computer does, you get exposed to malicious people. If you think this trade-off is worth it, then Micro$oft has appropriately designed their products for you. However, it is rude to assume that everyone shares your same value structure.