The Null Device

HTML Email Considered Harmful

Charlie Stross has a rant up titled "Ten reasons why I do not read HTML email".

While I don't take as hard a line on it as Mr. Stross, I pretty much agree with the sentiment; HTML email is wasteful, a nonstandard kludge mandated by the Microsoft/Netscape marketing departments and rarely if ever does it do anything text can't do. I also use Mutt as my mail client; reading my mail involves logging into a UNIX machine I have a shell account on and running mutt; this means I'm not tied to reading my mail where I keep my (hypothetical) copy of Outlook/Eudora/Apple Mail and don't have to depend on webmail systems (which are, at best, a compromise; they're good if you're backpacking through Outer Mongolia or something but not something you'd want to use from day to day).

The problem, however, is that a lot of non-spam email is HTML-only these days; especially with Hotmail (which is surprisingly popular with people who aren't UNIX geeks; and I'm not going to be so haughty as to only correspond with fellow techies and penguinheads) now sending HTML only by default. So after spending some time trying to ask non-technical users to switch to plain text because I'm one of the last few remaining mortals to not use a web browser to read their mail, I configured my mutt client to automatically convert HTML to plain text, by piping it through lynx -dump. Since lynx doesn't do images or Javascript, this avoids "web bugs" and various spammers' tricks.

I still don't read mail with JPEGs/Microsoft Word documents/&c. though. And when Microsoft Trusted DRM-Mail or whatever comes in, I won't read that.

There are 13 comments on "HTML Email Considered Harmful":

Posted by: Tama http://ponderance.blogspot.com Fri Jun 27 05:57:07 2003

Sounds like a good argument for Pegasus Mail where you have to launch questionable html mail into a new window by hand (it won't auto-execute). The system is also small enough (ie not microsoftness run) to avoid being a major hacker target! :)

Posted by: Ben http://rocknerd.org Fri Jun 27 06:08:10 2003

Here at work we regularly get sent megabyte-sized html rubbish as press releases from record companies and the like.

It's fast on cable, but I wouldn't want that stuff in my home account.

And no, I don't read it. There's a bizarre size/content correlation: after a certain message size (yet to be experimentally determined - if anyone wants to fund me to do the research...), content starts declining exponentially.

Posted by: benjamin http://www.carnagevisors.net Fri Jun 27 06:35:14 2003

I hate HTML email, most of the stuff I get with HTML is spam.

Benjamin

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org Fri Jun 27 06:35:25 2003

I remember Pegasus Mail. Back at university, the students who couldn't get UNIX accounts used it, running on MS-DOS PCs on a Novell LAN. Like most things in the Microsoftiverse, it seemed like a fairly poor alternative.

As for me, I used Pine when I was a newbie, then switched to elm, and once that stagnated, to mutt. I haven't looked back.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org Fri Jun 27 06:38:20 2003

Many non-geeks I know (from gigs and such) use Hotmail, and as such typically only send HTML mail. That's the only reason I bothered setting up mutt/lynx.

As for spam, http://spamcop.net takes care of that.

Posted by: Graham http://grudnuk.com/ Fri Jun 27 08:27:57 2003

Well, I'm still using Pmail, and it's good.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org Fri Jun 27 08:35:22 2003

Does your email account support procmail recipes to sort incoming mail? Can you save mail to folders on your server, as opposed to the disk of the PC you use? Would there be much hassle if you wanted to access your mail from somewhere other than your PC/copy of pmail?

Posted by: mark Fri Jun 27 13:11:46 2003

I'm quite fond of Pegasus Mail.

I used Mutt on *nix for a while, but I just couldn't send email. I wanted to connect to my host's POP3 server, but instead sendmail wanted to act as its own server. Or, er, something. I'm not as geeky as I appear, really.

Posted by: Graham http://grudnuk.com/ Fri Jun 27 15:15:29 2003

Note to acb: I am not your bitch. Stop advocating at me.

Posted by: Graham http://grudnuk.com/ Fri Jun 27 15:30:50 2003

Sorry, that was extremely narky.

What I meant to say was, I've been using Pmail for ages, and while my main conduit for mail runs through an ISP-specific POP3 server that can only be accessed through the ISP dialup, not through a shell account that I can use Mutt on - an arrangement which I will probably change soon. Mind you, I'll probably still use Pmail.

With the mail sorting stuff, Pmail does that very well. Plus it's nice to have local copies of mail when I'm offline, something which having it on a server would preclude. (Yes, I know there are ways of synchronising local and remote mailboxes, but that's something neither Pmail or mutt are good at.) Swings and roundabouts, ya know?

Just because I don't see a reason to change means I'm dependent on a particular setup.

Posted by: bignose Sat Jun 28 03:41:51 2003

Good stuff. Every one of the ten reasons is completely valid. Every person out there who simply refuses HTML mail, makes it that much easier to place the problem where it belongs: squarely in the lap of the person who needs to learn how to use email.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org Sat Jun 28 10:03:20 2003

And of course until Microsoft stop making HTML the default in their mail software, none of it has a snowball's hope in hell of changing anything.

Perhaps we need a new Internet from which all forms of Windows and Hotmail are banned, as are other newbie-coddling institutions like AOL, Blogspot and LiveJournal? That way the several thousand inhabitants of Internet 2.0 can enjoy their Star Wars discussions in peace.

Posted by: mark Mon Jun 30 11:58:46 2003

Indeed. You sit in front of a spanking new computer, and decide you want to learn how to use this new-fangled Internet thing. Your OS (Windows, of course) tells you "oh, Outlook Express [or whatever] is *the* tool."

You load Outlook Express. It tells you "treat me like a word processor. Here, you can use formatting. And pretty colours. And everything! And this is perfectly normal!"

I've had people email me to ask why I never take advantage of my email system's (at the time, it was a text-only webmail interface) formatting "features".

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