SAN FRANCISCO (04/10/2000) - Your e-mail program lets you format messages.
Great! You prepare a message, using different colors to highlight the important information and just to make everything look nice. You send it off.
And then the recipient responds: "What colors?"
The problem is that the Internet e-mail standard was never intended to carry anything but plain, unadorned text. In recent years, HTML--the standard Web-page code--has become the de facto workaround, letting people add color, fonts, and even pictures to their messages.
Outlook Express, Netscape Messenger, and Eudora Pro have all supported HTML-formatted e-mail for some years now, and many office e-mail systems have it as well. Even Web-based e-mail products like Hotmail can display HTML.
So who can't?
America Online Inc., for one. The world's largest Internet provider has its own e-mail formatting scheme, but it only works with messages going from one AOL member to another. AOL is working on integrating HTML with its e-mail system, and plans to have it ready with its next release, which will likely be called AOL 6.0.
But even if someone's e-mail address doesn't end in @aol.com, they may still miss out on your formatting. Some people just prefer older, more direct e-mail programs, and others can't afford a new computer that could provide something better. And if your recipient is using company e-mail, the IT department may not have sprung for an update in years.
To see whether HTML e-mail formatting has become common, I took a casual poll of friends and relatives, sending them a formatted message and asking them what they saw. Out of 21 responses, 7 reported getting nothing but text. I didn't include AOL members in the survey; if I had, the number would have been higher.
But even those who saw formatting didn't see all of it. Six people saw the bold, italic, and underlining, but didn't get the French Script MT font. Why?
If the font isn't on their system, their e-mail program can't display it. One Eudora Pro reader got only bold and italics until she changed a setting. "I may reset them for simplicity's sake," she says.
The final tally: Only 8 out of 21 saw exactly what I sent.
Even if your e-mail program doesn't support HTML, a formatted message is still readable. Most e-mail programs send a formatted message as straight text followed by the HTML. A modern program will hide the straight text and show the formatting; an older one will display the message as is, starting with the plain text.
If your e-mail program supports HTML, your best bet is to use it sparingly. Set the program to send plain text messages by default. Use HTML only when you just can't resist formatting. And never use formatting as a way to convey information--such as highlighting important text--unless you know that the other person will see it as well.