Tag Archives: Email client

When Technology Lets Us Down

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(from tcbuzz’s flickr collection)

Two recent events from the UK underlined how dangerous our dependence on technology can be.

The soccer UEFA Cup final in Manchester was overshadowed by riots when one of the massive screens installed in the city for fans who didn’t have tickets broke down.

And more recently, the inquest into the death of a former BBC editor found that she committed suicide after failing to find support among her colleagues. Her line manager, the inquest heard, tried to find her counselling:

However, her manager sent an email to the wrong address and his request was never acted on.

Technology is passive, and doesn’t take into account the implications of failure. In the first case the technology either didn’t work, or those setting it up didn’t know how to work (or fix) it. In the second case, the error was more obviously human: the sender of an email did not enter the correct address, or did not enter the address correctly.

This is more about our failure to anticipate failure in technology, and our blind dependence on it working.

Obviously, it would have been smart of the organizers in Manchester to have had a back-up plan in place for an eventuality like a screen breaking down. And the line manager’s apparent failure to see whether the email arrived at its destination or even to have picked up a phone and tried to reach the counsellor directly.

But perhaps there are ways for technology to further help us by providing a layer of redundancy? In the case of the screen, could there be some sort of diagnostics test which would alert the technicians that something was amiss, or about to be amiss?

And, in the case of email, the answer is perhaps simpler. There are tools out there to determine whether an email has arrived safely and been opened. The one I use is MessageTag, which will inform me whether an email I have tagged with the service has been opened. (The advanced service will give me a list of emails I have tagged and show me which ones have been opened, and which havent–a very useful checklist to show me which emails I need to follow up on.)

(There are privacy implications with services like MessageTag/MSGTAG, which I’ve gone into before. But sparing use of the service, I believe, is acceptable, so long as you give recipients the option of opting out of future tagging. Other people use the receipt acknowledgement option in Microsoft Outlook and some other email programs.)

We perhaps need to be reminded that technology, as it stands, won’t save us from ourselves.

How To Blow It From “From”

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I’m amazed by how many times this happens, and it always seems to be PR folk in the technology industry who are the culprits: An email where the sender, say Geoff Blah, hasn’t filled in the ‘From’ field in his email program or service so it appears in my inbox as from ‘gblah@aol.com’ or, sometimes, just gblah. (Yes, very lame for a PR person to be using their AOL account to send out pitches, but that’s another story.)

Why is not having any ‘from’ name not good?

  • Well, first off, it looks shoddy. It would be like sending me a letter and not bothering to actually put your name at the bottom, requiring me to decipher your handwriting. Or handing out namecards without an actual name on. Your emails are your business cards.
  • Secondly, it suggests a lack of technological prowess that may undermine you, or your agency’s, claims of being ‘best of breed’ or whatever is the cool term these days. One I received this morning was from a PR agency that claims expertise in consumer technology and IT technology. (The same agency hasn’t bothered to check its DNS registration, so entering the website’s name without the www’s — blah.com, not www.blah.com – – will result in an error. This further erodes my confidence in their much trumpeted ‘technical savvy.’)
  • Thirdly, it raises the chance of the email itself being discarded as spam. A lot of spam filters check these header fields for unusual or inconsistent activity and not having the ‘From’ alias field filled is one of them.
  • Fourthly, it irritates me and I hate being irritated in the morning.

So, all together now: Fill in your name in your email program or online service. Anything less looks like you’re either in a real hurry or you’re not sure what you’re doing.

Standing Alone vs, Well, Running

Why is everyone switching to the likes of Gmail and Google Reader, even when they aren’t sure why, or that they want to?

The most compelling reason, I think, is the ease with which you can get up and running if you need to switch. Your computer crashes, or you’re away from it. Or you’ve bought a new computer. Suddenly you no longer need to find your RSS feeds file. Your email settings. Import old mailboxes. I installed Vista on a new computer just now and (after a Vista crash) I was checking my email and reading my feeds almost immediately. That never happened before.

Google is basically riding the wave that Microsoft had hoped to ride. If you’re using Gmail, you may as well use the Google Reader. And Google Docs, and the Calendar, because they’re all a mouseclick away and don’t require any more signing in. In fact, you can have everything you need up and running within a minute. Compare that to installing an email client, an RSS reader, an Office suite, a PIM for the calendar, and then importing all the settings necessary, and you’re talking about adding on another hour unless you’re a really well-organised person.

There’s another obvious reason: They’re quicker. Ever tried to add an event to Outlook faster than to Google Calendar? Ever tried to send an email quicker than with Gmail? I haven’t timed myself, but anything that shaves a few minutes off my day is going to make itself indispensable pretty quick.

I’m now using all these tools, and I never thought I would. I don’t like the privacy issues, and I don’t like relying on a company that thinks calling something in perpetual ‘beta’ is an acceptable course of action, but I can’t resist. I tell myself it’s just a phase, and that I’ll soon switch back to my trusty email client and RSS reader. But it’s probably never going to happen. I may not stick around forever with Google’s offerings (let’s face it, Gmail and Google Reader need a lot of work before they’re A grade) but I have a feeling I’ll never go back to standalone.

Well, except for BlogJet. You gotta love the Jet. And PersonalBrain.

How to Convert, Export, Migrate, and Archive your Email

I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m a big fan of Fookes’ other programs but this sounds like a great tool if you’re using one email client and you want to move on but can’t export easily: Aid4Mail – Convert, Export, Migrate, and Archive all your Email

Aid4Mail is a user-friendly Windows tool that helps you migrate your email messages to a different mail client, export them for viewing through Internet Explorer, MS Excel, or a database, convert them to extract or re-insert attachments, and archive them to save space or for compliance with legal requirements. It supports most popular mail client programs and processes all messages without losing any information, including those with file attachments and embedded contents like pictures and background images. Unlike other migration methods, Aid4Mail can also export message status information such as “unread”, “read”, “replied”, and “forwarded”. Aid4Mail produces results quickly and with great accuracy.

I’m going to give it a shot and I’ll let you know how it works out. Anyone come across some other solutions?

Anagram’s Neat New Trick

Further to my list of favourite Windows programs, I’ve heard from Nicholas  Maddox of anagram, the program that grabs text and turns it into something your PIM can use,  that there’s a new version out with a neat feature — guessing the missing email address:

Wanted to let you know we’ve released anagram 2.5.0. One cool new feature is its ability to guess the email address in a situation where it’s not provided. Example: You receive an email from someone that contains their contact information. Often, the email address is not included in the contact info since you already have it in the email. When you capture the text with anagram, the email is missed. But now anagram sees that you are capturing from an Outlook email and grabs the sender’s email address as a guess if none is found, and alerts you of the guess.

Sadly the trick doesn’t seem to work with non-Outlook email programs. More details here.

Another E-mail Tracking Option

I use MessageTag to let me know whether recipients have got my email or not, and while I still wonder about the privacy implications, complaints have been few and far between. A new version, I’m told, is on its way.

Another option is DidTheyReadIt, which some folk (including myself) feel is far more intrusive: For one thing, recipients won’t know you’re tracking when/whether/how long for and where they’re looking at your email. 

But there is another option: Mailinfo. Mailinfo takes quite an ethical approach:  We believe in full disclosure. That means that a recipient of an email, sent by a Mailinfo user, is informed of the use of Mailinfo and what does it mean. Not just that: Therefore we made it a principle that in order to enjoy the service a user has to accommodate others wish to enjoy the service as well – namely a user can not use Mailinfo and at the same time use the mailinfo Confirmation Blocker.

Sadly, Maininfo only works with Microsoft Outlook. But it is free, and the homepage indicates they’re thinking about versions for other e-mail clients.

A Directory Of Windows E-mail IMAP Clients (And A Gripe)

I’ve been scouting around for a decent Windows e-mail program that supports Internet Message Access Protocol, or IMAP, but so far without success. Any suggestions? These are the ones I’ve played with so far, and while they all have their strengths, none seems to stand out:

  • Mozilla Thunderbird: Nice, very nice, but assigning filters/rules seems clunky and the junk filter seems poor.
  • Pegasus: Used to use this a lot, and still have a soft spot for it, but while it looks better than it did, the interface seems dated.
  • The Bat!: Not bad at all, but I seem to recall some complaints about IMAP implementation. Still testing it…
  • Outlook Express: Not as bad as I remembered it, but short of features such as filtering outgoing messages.
  • Outlook: Too big, too cumbersome, and it crashed on me.
  • Eudora: Not sure why I’ve never cared for this one, but I don’t. It’s that *blink* thing: You either like it or you don’t.
  • Courier: What I use at the moment, but it doesn’t do proper IMAP.
  • Mulberry: Fast and efficient but ugly.
  • PocoMail: I really want to like this one because it’s good to look at and has some nice features, but I couldn’t figure out some of its IMAP components, and ended up frustrated.

And that’s about it. Maybe there are more out there, but I can’t find ‘em. I’d welcome suggestions. I have to say it seems a pretty poor showing for such an oft-used medium.

Yahoo! Buys Bloomba

Yahoo! has bought Stata Labs, the guys behind Bloomba an excellent email program that is more of a database.

In a statement the company said they “intend to continue supporting Stata Labs’ existing customers for one year from the date of product purchase”. They said that while there is no word on what Yahoo! will do with Bloomba, there will be no more sales of the program, and folks who bought Bloomba within the last thirty days are eligible for a full refund.

As Reuters points out in a story on the purchase, Microsoft recently bought Lookout, a plugin that allows users to better search Outlook. Given that Bloomba has been described (pre-Gmail) as the Google of email, you might get an idea where this is all going. The big game in town seems to be to offer some sort of product that allows folk to get a better grip on searching their emails, contacts, what-have-you. Bloomba did a pretty good job of that.

And don’t forget that Yahoo! bought OddPost a few months back. Oddpost wraps email, RSS and other stuff into a kind of web-based email program. Neat stuff, although since Yahoo! bought it I’ve not heard anything more of it. Would be sad to see all this great stuff somehow get lost. And since I’ve recommended both products to readers in the past, should I and others be more wary about raving about stuff that gets sold off and subsequently disappears?

Is Zip The Way To Thwart Viruses?

I like this idea from a Slashdot poster: Eliminate most viruses by zipping everything.

It works (I think) like this: Most viruses arrive as an attachment to an email. These are called executables in that if you click on them, something happens. (As opposed to a file attachment such as a Word document, or a web page, which just opens — although it may contain some malicious script.) Some email programs, like Microsoft Outlook, block these executables by default, but many other programs don’t, or else users change the default setting because they find they cannot access one or two attachments which are kosher. Result: virus mayhem like MyDoom.

The poster suggests that if all attachments are zipped. Zip files by definition have to be unzipped before they can be launched, opened or whatever. Most unzipping programs will open those files to a specific folder, during which time they’ll be checked for viruses. More importantly, this process gives the user a chance to view the contents of the file before clicking on it, and may perhaps give them pause for thought.

Of course a lot of people do this already, but they tend to be people who aren’t going to be send viruses around, and they’re also not the kind of people to open dodgy attachments. In short, the people who zip aren’t the people we’re worried about. Somehow, we’ve got to convince ordinary folk to zip up, preferably by making it an automatic part of the email program. Attach a file to an email? The thing is automatically zipped.

The poster then suggests that email systems are set to delete or quarantine any executable that’s not zipped. That should remove most virus threats (of course some viruses arrive as zipped files, and rely on some social engineering to persuade the unwitting user to open and execute them, but there’s not much you can do if someone is suicidal enough to do all that.) The last point he makes: Encourage zip program vendors to work closer with anti-virus companies “to provide better protection from viruses in zip archives”.

I can’t see much wrong with this. I think zip programs could be easier to use (ironically, Microsoft’s inbuilt zip viewer in Windows XP seems to work best), but if they can be persuaded to integrate seamlessly with email clients, we may go some way to stemming the virus flood.

ZoEmail – The End Of Spam?

ZoEmail has just been launched [ZDNet article], and could change the way we send email. But is that a good thing?

ZoEmail uses a special system to authenticate email. It works like this:

  • When I, a ZoEmail user, wants to send you an e-mail, the system selects a unique “key” – a special word and number combination — and makes the “key” part of my e-mail address for you.
  • You treat this “keyed address” as you would any regular e-mail address. The “key” gives you the permission to have your e-mail received by my inbox. No key, no entry.
  • If I decide I don’t like you any more (or the email address falls into the wrong hands), I simply disable the “key” by clicking a button and switching it off. You can no longer send me stuff.

It’s a simple way of keeping spam and whatnot out of your inbox: The only way a virus (or spam) can find their way in, I guess, is if one of those people with your trusted email key (i.e. you) either sends it, or gets their email address book plundered by a virus, or if the user (i.e. me) gets the email addresses plundered from my email program. ZoEmail costs about $12 a year.

I think it could work. But as far as I can figure out from the website there might be problems:

  • A lot depends on the recipient (you, in my example). You’ve got to change your address book(s) to match the new unique address I give you, or you’re not going to be able to communicate with me without some fiddling.
  • Gone will be the days when you remember someone’s email address, or guess it logically based on where they work.
  • It is possible, ZoEmail says, to have normal email addresses that can be put on namecards etc. But while ZoEmail aren’t clear about how this works, one can only assume it’s some sort of challenge/response thing, where the sender has to jump through some hoops before the email reaches its destination. User patience with this sort of thing has been rather low, unsurprisingly.
  • Ease of use: What concerns me most about this kind of thing, is, while it is ingenious, it requires both sender and user to be a bit more tech savvy than a normal email user. Is that the direction that email should be going in? The reason email is so darn popular is that it’s very easy to use. The only problem I have seen in casual users (read: my mother) is handling email addresses. This bit, in my book, should be getting easier rather than harder.
  • Lastly, I think the best solution to spam, viruses and email authentication (did this person really send this email?) is an industry-wide one. In the meantime, there are services that don’t alter email addresses but do keep out spam and viruses, and these are good stop-gap measures. Most importantly, they don’t require folk fiddling around with their address books.

This all said, ZoEmail sounds like it’s worth a spin.