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Why Plain Text? - Howto

What's wrong with HTML email?
HTML is for web pages. Email is a text communication, a message meant to be read, not an artwork.
It all boils down to whether you are interested in every recipient being able to read what you write. Seeing that that is one of the most important thing of roleplaying in a Play-By-eMail game we have decided that all our RPG mailinglists will convert all non-plain text email to plain text automatically. However, for the best readability you should still post solely in plain text.
So why can't people read HTML email?
Maybe they really cannot. Maybe they can, but simply will not.

When you compose HTML email, you probably think it looks fine, and it probably does, to you. But, are your system fonts the same size as those used by others on the list? Most likely not. Many, perhaps even most, but certainly not all. Is your monitor the same size as the recipient's? How about the distance between the monitor and the viewer? Such things cause what you write to look different to the recipient than to you.

One of the features of HTML is the ability to dictate font size. This is OK for web pages. Changing fonts is useful for headings, titles, emphasis, demphasis and other things. But the main body, the bulk of content, should always be the system default size. Whatever the default is set to has probably been set that way because it is the most comfortable size for the user to read. He sets it based upon criteria that are of no concern to you, just like whatever criteria you use to set yours are of no concern to anyone but you. After all, most email recipients, and probably you, are using personal computers.

The problem with HTML email fonts are that, more often than not, the email program is imposing font size within the email. The most commonly used email programs do that. If your default size isn't the same as the recipient's, then he isn't seeing what you saw. Even worse, if your program or system is setting the use of a non-standard size, that size is also being forced on the recipient. If it is smaller than normal, he may choose not to read what you wrote even if he could, and he certainly won't if he can't.
So are font sizes the only problem with HTML email?
No. There is more.

HTML assumes the email reading program can accomodate the HTML markup tags, translating them into the different sizes, positions and other formatting we expect as a part of web pages. This in turn assumes the email reading program is using a graphical interface to provide all such formatting.

When the user's email program works only in text mode, such things are not possible. Instead, all the HTML formatting information is displayed as text right along with the content of your message. When mixed together without the benefit of a graphical interface, it all turns into an incomprehensible, unintelligible mess of mumbo jumbo.

Email via the internet was created long before the web and the graphical web browsers that make the web what it is. In the early years, all there was was text. Everyone's computer screen was text only, and not everyone was using a PC either. Many used simple text terminals hooked up to mainframe computers. Some of these terminals were teletext instead of CRT screens. Many people still use terminals instead of computers to read email, and many who use computers still use screens that display only text. It doesn't matter why, they just do.

Another problem is creating digests out of the HTML-ized email. With all of the HTML tags, email looks like line noise even when read with an HTML capable reader. When that HTML-ized message is shoved in the middle of a dozen other emails, even HTML capable readers can't properly decode it.

If you want your email read, you must not use HTML formatting.
So, that's all?
No. There is even more.

HTML or MIME messages are larger and more wasteful than simple text messages. Using HTML or MIME in E-mail messages makes the messages larger in size by a mimimum of two thirds to more than twenty times. These will take longer to download and they take up more storage space than standard plain text E-mail messages.
E-mail storage is important because many people retain copies of messages they receive. In addition, our mailing lists archive the messages. The smaller the message are, the less diskspace this archive needs, the more messages can be archived.
Okay, are we done now?
No. We still have more on the subject.

Embedded HTML or MIME attachments are the number one method of spreading virus, worm or Trojan programs.
For instance, the Forgotten worm was written in Visual Basic Script and spread without any attachment. Instead, the worm code was embedded into the HTML formatted message body.

The I Love You worm program exploited an ActiveX vulnerability and was executed just by viewing or previewing the e-mail message without opening any attachment.

Likewise, embedded code could exploit some MS Office vulnerability as with Office ODBC Vulnerabilites and Specially Formed Script in HTML Mail can Execute in Exchange 5.5

HTML messages can trigger dialups to the Internet if they contain links to specific images called "web bugs" that are used to track message and advertiser viewing. See Web Bug FAQ.

MIME encoded attachments with file extensions (BAT, COM, DOC, EML, EXE, HTA, JS, PPT, SHS, VBE, VBS, WSH, XL#) have been the most common method of sending viruses, worms and Trojan programs because their code will be executed by Windows and associated viewers or other MS programs when the attachment is opened. Windows uses the extension to determine what the default action on a file will be. For instance, a .txt file will open in Notepad and a .html file will open in Internet Explorer.

Uncommon, but no less dangerous are file extensions (386, ACM, ACV, ADT, AX, BIN, BTM, CLA, CPL, CSC, CSH, DEV, DLL, DOT, DRV, HLP, HTM, HTT, INF, INI, JSE, JTD, MDB, MP#, MPP, MPT, MSO, OBD, OBT, OCX, OLE, OV#, PIF, PL, PM, POT, PP#, PPS, PRC, RAR, RTF, SCR, SH, SHB, SMM, SYS, VSD, VSS, VST, VXD, WSF, XL#, XLB, XTP).
Well, I am very sorry but I do not know how to disable it. I've looked in the menus and can't find anything about HTML.
Micro$oft euphemistically calls HTML "rich text" in most of its software, such as Outlook Express, which is installed by default with Windows 98. You must find a way to turn rich text or HTML off for all mailing list messages. To make the changes stick for all your list email, you may need to change your address book entries for each of the list recipients you include.

Here is a list with several programs and how to set them up to send your email in plain text. More tips and corrections can be emailed to our Webmaster.
If you are still unable to get your software to send plain text emails, then you can use our WebMail (Members Only) to send to our addresses and lists.

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