Line wrapping in e-mail: a moral tale

This is a reply to a question someone sent to me about a problem their friend was having with electronic mail from a particular sender. I have made only slight changes to protect the privacy of those involved.

> Bob: Here is the message about what was happening when
> Lloyd received Ralph's email.
> > Ralph, your e-mails are very difficult to read.
> > Your whole email is one line about 6 feet long, and I
> > don't know how to get it on the screen visable.
> > Maybe Netscape doesn't know how to read what
> > ever software it is you use. Lloyd
> > Happy New Year.
> >
> >

OK, I see what's going on here. Let me tell you a story. (For readers just looking for a solution, you can cut to the chase.)

Back in the Olden Dayes, when the Internet was called Arpanet and Windows was not even a twinkle in Bill Gates's eye, e-mail was a very simple matter. You called up a text editor (or punched some IBM cards if you didn't have one of those new-fangled "glass teletypes"), and wrote your message. You used only characters in the American alphabet, each one exactly as wide as any other. You had two choices of font: upper case and lower case. (Some primitive tribes didn't even have lower case.) If your editor wasn't smart enough to adjust the lines to stay within the 80-character limit of punched cards and most glass ttys, you did it by hand. (Actually, the e-mail protocol didn't care how long the lines were, but your recipient would read the message by printing it out or displaying it on a glass tty, and you had to assume that these devices would simply throw away any text beyond the 80th character of a line.) Once the message was ready and saved in a file, you called up a mail program, gave it the e-mail address and subject line, and fed it the file containing your message.

All of this was done by typing commands. A lot of time was spend learning these commands by reading manuals that came with the computer system. There were no windows, no mouse, no graphics, just a keyboard, maybe a screen, whose contents were in *plain text*. Geeks didn't mind: in fact they preferred it this way.

When Windows came along, the Internet was still limited to scientists and academic types. Ordinary people didn't have access to the Internet, so word processors like MS Word were developed without e-mail in mind. Business applications were at the fore of the designers' thoughts, so fancy fonts and graphics were de rigeur. Automatic alignment of margins was taken for granted: in fact, you were not supposed to hit the carriage return except for the end of a paragraph. The word processor would take the long lines and break them suitably to fit the page.

By developing Windows, the people at Redmond were attempting to do something very difficult. They were trying to produce a computer system that could be used by people who were not geeks. The key idea was the Graphical User Interface (abbreviated GUI, and pronounced gooey) that is interposed between the user and the actual underlying system. The user just points and clicks to choose the action to be carried out. This scheme allows Microsoft to sell lots of software and Intel to sell lots of hardware, but it puts millions of people in control of systems they don't really understand.

Meanwhile, in a universe far, far away, the World Wide Web was coming into existence. It was being developed by people who remembered the Olden Dayes and who didn't use MS Word or its competitors. They invented a web browser called Mosaic that suddenly allowed people all over the world to share information and even to send and receive their e-mail with it. But the e-mail messages were still being composed using a rather primitive text editor, not a word processor. At this point in time, the only people using Mosaic were still the geeks and academics, so they didn't mind. Mosaic begot Netscape, which inherited these archaic prejudices.

Ultimately, of course, the World Wide Web went commercial and the folks at Redmond got involved. Now they faced the job of marrying their office software with e-mail and the Web. Naturally, their web browser ended up looking a lot more like a word processor than Netscape does. It is also tightly integrated with all the MS Office applications, to make it easy for users to interchange documents and spreadsheets with just a few clicks of the mouse. Mail can now have all sorts of fonts and graphics, provided your mail reader knows about them.

Of course, this approach produces a strong incentive for people to use the same software on both ends of the exchange. Microsoft had no problem with that, since you know whose software would be the logical choice as the de-facto standard. Many people don't even realize there is a choice. But some folks still prefer to use different software, which may choose to do things somewhat differently from the way Internet Explorer does them.

It is at this point that the really difficult part of what Microsoft wants to do by means of their Windows GUI becomes apparent. So long as everybody does as Bill Gates bids and uses the same software everywhere, all the gory and complicated details can be nicely tucked away down in the innards of the software and only the geeks in Redmond need to know about them. But as soon as some recalcitrant type gets involved, who insists on using another company's software, these details begin poking out from behind the stage set Microsoft has so carefully constructed. One result is that friends of that person may find they have problems communicating.

What is the solution? Do we march to Microsoft's tune, ostracizing and shunning those heretical enough to doubt Bill Gates's wisdom, until everyone is forced to use MS Office and all the competition is crushed? Or do we try to educate users so that they will send their e-mail in forms that are compatible with the diversity that exists out there on the Internet? That's a tall order: we really can't expect everybody who wants to use the Internet to become a geek. The obvious compromise is for Microsoft to re-design their software so that it allows easy compatibility with other vendors' products. Obvious to you and me, yes. Obvious to Bill Gates, I wouldn't bet on it. Perhaps the antitrust suit will ultimately lead to something along these lines. Let us hope.


OK, now to address the original question. Gory details follow, but that's the reality of the situation. It is clear that Ralph is composing his e-mail using some application software that automatically wraps the lines so they fit on his screen. (I am assuming he is sane, i.e. he doesn't see a 6-foot long line in the message he is sending and think that's fine. He sees a normal-looking page of multiple lines of text.) But the carriage returns are not "really there", in other words his text is in fact one long line. This is normal behavior for people who are used to using a word processor to compose documents. The problem is that Lloyd is reading them in Netscape and it is not wrapping the lines. Now, Netscape normally does wrap lines automatically if the document is HTML (the language of the World-Wide Web). Apparently the e-mail is being sent as plain text rather than HTML. Netscape does not automatically wrap lines for plain text documents.

There are several solutions:

  1. Tell Ralph to insert the carriage-returns in his e-mail documents. There are two problems with this solution, assuming Ralph is willing to go along with it. One is that it can be hard to tell whether the carriage-returns are there or not, since without them the word processor wraps the line anyway. Probably the best way to tell is to make the lines shorter than the word processor normally wraps them. The other problem is that word processors that do auto-wrap usually don't do automatic margins in the sense of placing the carriage-returns in the right place for you. They only use carriage-returns for paragraph endings. So Ralph has to insert the carriage-returns by hand, carefully aligning his paragraph margins to look nice. If he then decides to go back and add or delete some text, the whole laborious process has to be done over or the paragraph will be ragged.

  2. Tell Ralph to send his documents in HTML mode instead of plain text mode. You didn't say what software Ralph is using to send e-mail. I don't know how Microsoft software controls these things, but if he is using Netscape, the Edit / Preferences / Mail & Newsgroups / Formatting menu item allows you to specify how mail should be sent: as plain text, HTML, or both, or to ask how to send each message. This may be the best solution, but it might cause problems for some other of Ralph's recipients if they are used to text mode.

  3. Lloyd could copy and paste the mail message into Wordpad. Wordpad does auto-wrapping, so the message should look normal there. This is a bit of an inconvenience, but it is the kind of inconvenience I personally am used to, being one of those cranky heretics mentioned in the last paragraph of the story above. You can tell him I sympathize.

I hope this is all clear and you had fun reading my tirade. Now that I've written it I think I'll post it on my web site for others to enjoy.


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