Plain text emails

“In the beginning… ” all emails consisted solely of “plain text”.

Then people wanted “more”, and the programmers delivered.

Then the marketing people started pushing for “give them anything they want… and don’t count the cost.”

So now we can do (almost) anything… and sometimes it works.

In The Good Old Days, if I sent “ABC” in an email, three numbers passed through the internet. (65, 66 and 67, if you write the numbers the way we all did when we were children.

But all my recipient received was “ABC”… no pretty colors, no differences of font, and just text.

But it meant that the message didn’t take ages to send or receive. And it meant that the program that received it had a good chance of displaying the message in a sensible form… even though the message came from one sort of computer, but was being read on a different sort.

Today, we have a choice- we can send our emails as “plain text” or “formatted”, sometimes called “HTML”.

Many apps let you instruct your system to send all of your emails in BOTH… and the recipient chooses which version to display on his/her screen.

I said, “We have a choice…”. I doubt one user in ten has even a basic understanding of the choices. Making the choices is often tricky, and often gives rise to unwanted consequences. And so many people “choose” to use the formatted (HTML) mode, both for preparing the emails they send, and for reading what they receive.

The “big boys” (and girls) love formatted text… it lets them do all sorts of things that they can’t do with plain text. Track your usage. Force adverts on you. Dangle links to tempt you to visit the pages they want you to visit. Make money… in some cases if you just open their email. (Not directly from you.) And what the big boys want, the big boys get. The plain text version supplied with some emails today is all but un-usable. I can choose to stay away from, say, eBay. I can’t choose to stay away from the only way I am allowed to communicate with a tax authority. Orwell did a pretty good job, but even his imagination didn’t quite see 2020.

Further details, for the very inquisitive reader…

There’s an additional way for things to go wrong creeping into our online world…

If I send the first of the two lines below…

This is an /example/

… as plaintext, just 21 characters are needed. It will be sent using one number for each of the characters you see above. There are no overheads of message lengths or ways for things to go wrong.

At the receiving end, the app there may display that as you see it above… or it may display it as…

This is an example

The formatting you can achieve this way is limited, but even users who think they do everything (sending and reading) in plain text are no longer “safe” from complications.