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March 1, 1999

E-mail with rich text: Some readers like it, others really don't

In a recent column I described the way PC users are creating "rich text" e-mail with Microsoft's Outlook Express (which comes with Internet Explorer 4.0), Outlook 98, Netscape Messenger, and other programs. (See "With HTML, you can spruce up plain-text e-mail messages," Feb. 15.) Such e-mail contains HTML that enhances the plain text of the message with fonts, colors, and graphics. In response, many readers sent me impressive examples of their use of this technology.

One of the best is from reader Rex Joffray. Every problem that reaches his help desk is logged into an e-mail message based on HTML. Each message is actually a live form, complete with pull-down option boxes to fill in various data. Users can easily select options to fill in their name, their department, their location, and the date of the report. It's easier to click "January" than to type in the month, and it's less prone to errors.

To see the HTML code that generates this form, click View Source or a similar command in your browser.

The biggest problem with rich-text e-mail is that many mail systems aren't currently configured to support HTML. Fixing this may be as easy as changing a configuration setting in a mail server. In other cases, e-mail client programs must be updated.

A good test of whether your e-mail system is equipped to display HTML mail is provided by Woody's Office Watch, an e-mail newsletter. Send a blank message to A robot sends you back a rich-text message. If you can read it, great. If it looks weird, the message gives you tips on how to fix it. My thanks to John Cassero for this tip.

Many readers complained about the size of rich-text messages. But HTML isn't causing much bloat. HTML is just a few bytes of ASCII text added to the body of a message. What really bogs down the Internet is graphics files, as reader Mike Painter points out. With Victoria's Secret sending soft-porn videos across the Net, you can hardly blame someone for inserting <BODY FONT SIZE=4> into a header.

Some feel HTML mail isn't an Internet standard and thus isn't kosher. But rich-text mail was made a standard in 1992 with the adoption of a document called RFC1521, which defines Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions, or MIME. See

However, serious problems do exist with HTML mail. Rich Markey used to send mail with the rich-text feature of Windows Messaging. Then he found that PCs with Outlook or Outlook Express would report that an attachment had been received from him, but it was unreadable or inaccessible. This was confirmed by Steve Reiner, who spoke with Outlook technical support and learned that only the plain-text setting would guarantee that attachments would arrive uncorrupted.

Finally, many people object to anything but plain text in e-mail. Charlie Hills may have said it best: "I have to explain over and over again why JOIN MAILINGLIST is not the same thing as <HTML> <BODY> JOIN MAILING LIST </BODY> </HTML>."

Soon, e-mail programs will support HTML flawlessly. But for now, my advice is to send HTML mail only to recipients you know are equipped for it.

A free copy of Windows 98 Secrets goes to the readers mentioned above for sending me these tips.

Brian Livingston's latest book is Windows 98 Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions.

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