Originally created 05/17/99

Attachment woes in e-mail can be resolved

Do e-mail attachments send you around the bend? About the time you think you've worked out all the permutations, up crops something new that messes up big-time.

Exactly what is an attachment? Basically, it's a file, attached to an e-mail note, in a specific format that usually needs a specific kind of program to read it. There are a half-dozen file formats for photos, countless others for spreadsheets, word-processing programs and databases.

Attachments have been big news lately, since they can harbor computer viruses. And aside from that, attached graphics files are becoming increasingly popular as ways to send digital photos of the kids to computer-literate grandparents.

The first thing to remember when you create an attachment is that you don't know what software the guy at the other end of the e-mail has available to read it.

If you send a file in Microsoft Word format and all he has is Works, the recipient may not be able to open it. A Photoshop file is exotic to anyone who isn't a graphic artist. If we all owned brand-new, perfectly maintained PCs with Windows 98 and identical software, we'd never have problems with attachments. The real world of computing, alas, mixes Apples, PCs of various vintages and a basketful of programs.

In general, this counsels for applying the so-called KISS principle of computing: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Use the lowest common denominator of formatting, in other words, formats that can be read by lots of programs.

Text is better off being sent as plain text, in the body of the e-mail, rather than as an attachment in the latest version of Word. If you need to send formatted text, use your word processor's RTF (Rich Text Format) option, rather than its native format. Photos are best sent in formats every Web browser and many e-mail programs understand: GIF and JPEG (which we'll explain later). As for audio, the safe (though not particularly efficient) bet is WAV, because those files work on a player that is built into even the oldest versions of Windows.

The second rule of attachments is: Even if you do have a program that will open the file, it may not be set up to do so.

Windows identifies file formats with a three-letter extension at the end of the file name. You don't always see this extension in directories, because Windows is usually set to hide the information. Trust me, it is there.

In a properly set-up computer, right-clicking on the attachment icon -- it varies among programs -- will get you a prompt to open the file, or save it to disk. Choose "open" and Windows looks at the file extension, then examines its innards to find out what program is registered to handle that extension. It then obligingly loads that program and displays the file.

That's how it's supposed to work: Odds are, the newer your computer, the more formats it can handle automatically and correctly. But two things can go haywire here:

-- The wrong program is registered to open the file and can't. That's what happened in my case: The Corel installation overrode the association set up by the fax installation, and Corel choked on the format.

-- No program is registered to open the file. At that point, when you try to automatically open the file, you'll get a prompt and a Windows menu that lets you select among the dozens of programs on your disk drive. Only a few will work in any given case.

You can also modify file associations manually -- something I suggest you approach cautiously, since you can very easily disable correct associations.

Associations can automate attachments nicely, but there's a possibility here of too much of a good thing. Programs that allow for the creation of macros -- little internal programs that automate routine tasks, like formatting -- can also harbor macro viruses that will damage your computer.

The two main ones to watch are Excel (.xls) and Word (.doc). If a Word document sent as an attachment has a macro virus attached to it, that virus will execute when you double-click on the attachment.

Unless you know you have working antivirus software installed, don't open the attachment until you can be sure of its origin. Just because it comes from someone you know doesn't mean it is clean -- that person can be a victim, too.

Graphics files don't execute and invoke viruses, but they do have their own problems. They are big. It's not unusual for the raw output of a digital scanner to exceed 2 megabytes.

The solution here is twofold: First, you need to downsample the original digital artwork, then you need to compress it. The rudimentary photo processing software that comes with digital devices typically displays the size of the photo in pixels. You can adjust this downward to some fraction of what your screen can display -- 640 by 480 pixels is usually plenty. Then you have to convert the file to one of two compressed formats: JPEG (.jpg) or GIF (.gif) from uncompressed formats like BMP or TIFF. You should be able to get the photo down to 50K or less at that point, and it will transmit almost instantly, even over regular phone lines.