Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Netiquette - the Polite Art of Email part III

August 1998

By Mike Gould

Conserving Bandwidth
This is a major goal for Internet politeness, and as I have already mentioned it (and will continue to bludgeon you with it in columns to come), I guess I had better define it. Bandwidth is the amount of data you can shove down a wire in a given amount of time. As most of us are connected to the Internet via modems, we are restricted in the speed at which we can down- and upload data. That is why a 28.8 modem is better than a 14.4 modem: it moves stuff twice as fast. And since we have these annoying bottlenecks in our communication pathways, it behooves us all to keep it short and sweet. If you send someone a large picture via email, it will take an inordinate amount of time to download, tying up your correspondent’s phone line, and often increasing their ISP bill. A common computer-person term of contempt is "What a waste of bandwidth!" We will return to this theme when we finally get around to discussing the World Wide Wait, uh, I mean, Web.

It is possible to send files via email; envision a document paper-clipped to your email. Again, the exact mechanism varies, but there is usually an enclosures button on your email program’s toolbar; you click on the button, the program asks for the location of the attached file, and the fun begins. You send off a scan of your kid’s refrigerator drawing, and get a message back from Gramma asking "What is this gibberish in my email, and where is the kitty drawing from little Carmen?"

The problem is usually traced to incorrect file types, lack of an appropriate program on the receiving end, and/or files that are just too !@#$$ big.

File types: If the kitty drawing was done using the MacDraw application on a Mac and Gramma has a PC with no drawing program at all, she will not be able to open the file. The solution: always ask first before sending something; verify that the recipient has a program that will open the file.

The work-around is the Save As command. When you finish working in a document and type in your normal save command, the program (application) saves the document in its native format, Word, Excel, MacDraw, etc. Normal format means that double-clicking on the document on your computer tells the computer "I am a Word document, open up the Word application and display me". The computer knows what application to open in the Windows world because Word appended the .doc extension to the file name; in the Mac world, the information is stored invisibly.

The key here is that applications (or apps, as we ever-thrifty computer types call them...hey, this is a computer column, might as well pick up some geekspeak) can save in other formats than their own, formats that are accessible to other apps. The main format for text exchange is either raw text (.txt) or Rich Text Format (.rtf); .txt files contain just letters and numbers, no formatting (different fonts, centering, underlining, etc — .rtf files can contain some formatting and .rtf is a better choice if you are trying to enclose a fancier document such as a menu, proposed brochure, or poster copy. To do a Save As in Word, hit F12; other apps have other ways of doing this. Be aware that the trip to and from the Internet may strip away useful information from a file; double-clicking on a received file may not open it. The solution is to open your application and then use the File/Open command to open the file from within the app.

Back to the above scenario: if the kitty drawing was saved not in the MacDraw-native format but in a more universal format such as TIFF or BMP, Gramma could probably open it in Microsoft Word on her PC. If Gramma uses a browser such as Netscape for email, and Muffy saves the file as kitty.gif, Gramma could open the file directly in her email program. The key again is communication; check beforehand, and in the body of the message, include something like: "Enclosed is a cute picture of Barfy that little Carmen drew; it is a .gif file that you can open in Netscape". Never assume your recipient has the same version of Word that you use, for instance; Word 97 can open word 6, but not vice-versa. If you both have exactly the same versions of programs, you can fire at will.

Compressing Files
I recently had an enclosure emailed to me that clogged up my system completely. The sender enclosed a graphic that was 1.5 Megabytes in size. At my modem’s speed, this would take 25 minutes to download, and my ISP kept closing my connection after 5 minutes of no keyboard activity. I couldn’t get to any of my other email because every time I reconnected, my ISP insisted on starting with the big file. To fix it I had to invoke Advanced Internet Conniptions (PINE email - don’t ask) and manually remove the offending graphic.

What my email-challenged friend should have done was to compress the file into JPEG format, using any one of several free encoding apps. This can squeeze a graphics file down to 1/10 or less of the original file size, conserving bandwidth and recipient ire. The moral of the story is: keep enclosures as small as possible. Some ISPs will refuse to forward any thing over 250K; when in doubt, contact your recipient and find out what the tolerances are.

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