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Technology Tip of the Month

May, 1997: E-mail Attachments

by Deborah Healey

E-mail is a wonderful means of communication. It lets us make and retain connections to people in distant places. For most people, composing in a mail program is almost as easy as using a word-processor -- whole-text rather than line-by-line editing is available in free or very inexpensive mail programs for all kinds of computers. (If you're still using Elm or Unix mail, talk to your computer people about Pine, a free program for mainframe computers from the University of Washington.)

It's easy to get accustomed to 'painless' e-mail communication, where the biggest problem is in typing the name of the recipient correctly -- at least until you've added that person to your electronic address book. And then someone has the bright idea to send you a little graphic or a formatted file, and reality hits: you get an e-mail attachment that your mail program chokes on. You get a message on the order of "Unrecognized attachment" or an otherwise unintelligible message that includes the phrase, "This message must be decoded with binhex." What next?

too much mailThe topic of this month's tech tip is one of my biggest e-mail frustrations, attachments. I've put together some suggestions based on my experience with trying to send and receive files in different ways, most notably with the Online Seminar I did last month for Eastern European EFL teachers.

A Bit of Background

Eudora iconE-mail works to send messages from one type of computer to another because it uses one of computing's lowest common denominators (at least, one that's still readable by humans)-- plain text, sometimes referred to as ASCII text. Each letter in the Roman alphabet is assigned a unique code, and all operating systems interpret that code in the same way. (Note: Where you may run into problems is if you or your correspondent use a non-Roman alphabet that uses an extended version of ASCII text--if both operating systems don't recognize that extended set of codes, you'll see some very strange characters on your screen.)

ccmail iconIf you want to use formatting such as bold or italics, a different font or point size, or anything other than the most ordinary-looking text, your word-processor is adding additional, usually hidden, characters to your document. These fall outside the set of codes used by plain text and therefore have to be translated--encoded-- and sent as a separate but attached message for electronic transmission. The same thing goes for graphics, sound, and video files, since they're not plain text either. Therein lies the rub: if your mail program encodes these attached files in a way that my mail program doesn't recognize, we have a problem.

Useful Vocabulary

The Good News

Pegasus iconThe good news is that, once you get over your initial surge of dismay and download the translation software you need, you can usually transform your attachments into something that your computer will understand. Here's how.
  1. Get a copy of the appropriate translator. There are a number of programs available, and you can find more than my brief list here by searching the web for 'binhex,' 'zip,' or 'uuencode.' Stuffit Expander is a free all-purpose program from Aladdin Systems that works pretty well, and is now available in both Macintosh and Windows versions. It often comes with Netscape Navigator, so you may have a copy already.
  2. Save the attachment to disk on a desktop machine, or Export it if you're using Pine. If someone has done you no favor and has included a binhexed or uuencoded message within a regular mail message, you'll usually need to take off everything in the message before the phrase "(This message must be decoded with binhex)" or "This is a uuencoded message," then save the rest to disk. You can try it without doing the cutting first, but if the translator doesn't work, you'll need to go back into the message and excise the offending portion.

  3. Run the translator, selecting the saved/exported file as your target.

  4. The test--see if you can now read the file. Remember that if it's a formatted word-processed document, graphic, sound file, or video clip, you will need the appropriate software to be able to read, view, or listen to what you've translated. Open the application you think will work first, then try opening the file if it's not in a format that you're sure you recognize. As a fallback, PageMaker is very good at reading a variety of word-processor and graphics files, and Netscape or Internet Explorer may have the tools you need to read a sound file or video clip.

Whew. That's why I ask my students to send me their homework not as an attachment, but by copying the text within their word-processor, then pasting it into an e-mail message. It's not nearly as pretty, but it's a lot less work for me to open and read. If you'd like more information on the subject of attachments, try, a basic primer on binary attachments in e-mail, or, a lengthy explanation of attachments and different formats.

A caveat: many mail programs cannot handle large files (a 256K limit is not unusual), and many people have size limits on their mailboxes. Before you e-mail a wonderful but very large sound or video clip to someone, check with them about it. If you have a website, it may be easier for them to download it from the web than to get it as an e-mail attachment.

See Other tech tips

If you have questions, comments, or for more information, contact Deborah Healey, dhealey AT uoregon DOT edu
Last updated 26 June, 2009