A growing attachment to e-mail

Sending documents via the Internet can be great
provided you iron out a lot of details first


Theory: Sending documents to clients over the Internet is great. Reality: Sending documents can be great -- but only if you iron out a lot of details first.

Before the Internet became popular, documents usually were transferred via dial-up communication software and the public telephone network. The process required that personnel at both ends of the transaction talk by telephone, start their software, select a transmission protocol, connect their computers via modem and attend the file-transfer session. The process was time-consuming and tedious.

Today, with many firms and clients hooked into the Internet, the originator can simply send an e-mail message with an attached document file. When the message arrives, the recipient detaches the file and brings it up in word processing.

Leaving aside security concerns and file compatibility issues (Macintosh vs. Windows, Word vs. WordPerfect), a subtle but crucial technical issue arises: How is the file encoded when it is attached to the message?

Encoding attachments

The Internet was designed to carry seven-bit ASCII data. But many attachments -- word processing files and spreadsheets, for example -- are structured as eight-bit, or "binary," files.

Binary files must be converted to ASCII before they can be sent; at the receiving end, attachments are converted back to binary. There are two popular attachment formats.

Uuencode (Unix-to-Unix encode) is the most frequently used format. Many e-mail programs, such as the one we use (Internet in a Box from SPRY, Inc., in Seattle -- now a division of CompuServe), come with Uuencode built in.

MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions), a newer standard, is coming into rapid use because of its inclusion in such popular products as Netscape Navigator (Netscape Communications Corporation, Mountain View) for World Wide Web browsing and Eudora (Qualcomm, Inc., San Diego) for e-mail.

Several months ago, we started looking for a MIME utility to supplement Internet in a Box. We downloaded Information Transfer Professional (aka XferPro, from Sabasoft, Inc., Naperville, Ill.) from CompuServe's Internet Resources Forum. For a registration fee of only $10, the product has proven to be a great value.

Yet there was still a gap. XferPro encoded MIME attachments outside our e-mail software. Inserting the MIME-encoded file into a message produced an attachment that was not automatically recognized. The recipient had to save the message as a file and use separate software to pull out the attachment. Because one of our major clients was committed to MIME, we had to find a better way.

Two e-mail programs

Figuring we might as well get the latest Web browser anyway, we bought Netscape Navigator Personal Edition. (Yes, some people do actually pay for the product rather than download it for free.)

With a version of Eudora e-mail software built in, Navigator Personal Edition encodes and decodes MIME with ease.

The downside: We now have two e-mail programs that cannot share address lists or file folders. Whenever possible, we still use Internet in a Box, because that is where the vast majority of our addresses and messages have been stored. We use Navigator Personal Edition e-mail when we must send MIME-encoded messages.

Perhaps some day SPRY will add MIME or Netscape will add Uuencode. Until then -- or until we run across e-mail software that handles both formats and is attractive enough to make us switch -- we will stick with the two-program approach.

Dana H. Shultz is an Oakland-based lawyer and certified management consultant. He may be reached by e-mail at dhshultz@ds-a.com and on the World Wide Web at http://seamless.com/ds/.