Wednesday, August 08, 2001

The Joy of Plaintext Microsoft hates the fact that email is in plaintext. My Outlook Express client is buggy when it comes to handling the simplest of all tasks: receiving and responding to a text email. I've fiddled with all the internal settings, trying to get it to convert HTML mail to text, responding in text, and including all these simple plaintext protocols like adding ">" to quoted parts of an email I'm responding to. But my Outlook still insists on having things pop-up in tiny, colored fonts that are impossible to read, and then not tagging quoted text. In this environment, emails quickly bloat and become incoherent.

This hatred of plaintext is also evident in Hotmail, Microsoft's Trojan horse to Passport. The web-based text editor actually allows you to format your mail using bold, italic, and underline etc. Insanity even when it doesn't crash your browser. I'm glad AOL is still holding out against this sort of nonsense. I hope it continues to do so.

Why does Microsoft hate plaintext? One possible reason is it comes from the PC-world where having a printer was all important, and don't understand that desktop publishing functions like bold, italic, and underline make no sense in the networked world, where data is rarely printed out. But I think they're smarter than that. The real reason Microsoft hates plaintext is because it makes lock-in impossible. Plaintext can be created by anything and read by anything. It is the cleanest, simplest, least proprietary way of passing information from A to B. The Unix culture, where interoperability is God understands this, and has raised simple programs passing plaintext to a high Art. By contrast, Microsoft thinks interoperability is Satan and focuses on locking-in customers and locking-out competitors, using proprietary file formats like .doc to extend its monopoly. Plaintext is the enemy of proprietary standards. It is also the enemy of monolithic programs that are liberal in what they try to do and conservative in what input they accept. Microsoft understands this well, so is trying to kill the format.

The average computer user does not understand the power of plaintext. They don't know how to work in the networked world and see no problems with storing notes that will never be printed in Word documents. In time, businesses that understand how to operate in a networked environment will realize what Unix users have known all along -- keeping information in plaintext allows for faster searching, delivery, and manipulation, the bold, italic, and underline of the networked world. And if businesses reinvent themselves along these principles, they will gain competitive advantage over their competitors.

In the meantime, don't let Microsoft turn email into just another of their proprietary standards. Stick to plaintext.
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