[linux-elitists] HTML email

Aaron Sherman ajs@ajs.com
Wed Nov 3 10:42:20 PST 2004

On Wed, 2004-11-03 at 13:48 +1100, Ben Finney wrote:

> On 03-Nov-2004, Mike MacCana wrote:
> > Eugen Leitl wrote:
> > >On Wed, Nov 03, 2004 at 01:29:50AM +1100, Mike MacCana wrote:
> > >>Use HTML. 
> > >No. Why on earth?
> >
> > It looks like you're assigning text to URLs. Your sentences are
> > smeared with annoying footnotes, making it hard to read and navigate.
> > You should use hypertext.
> Using hypertext means using something that isn't email.

Not at all, and in fact email has had many iterations that integrated
hypertext, dating back to LISP machines and PARC. I think what you might
have meant to say is:

        RFC-compliant, SMTP-trasfered, RFC2822-headered (I still mourn
        RFC822) email without MIME extensions is not hypertext-aware.
This I will, of course, grant.

What confuses me is that this kind of anti-post-Web email standards
debate would happen on Linux Elitists. On the hypothetical BSD Elitists
list, I could see it, as their OS has a tradition that extends back to
the dawn of the Internet and much of their (our, as it turns out)
customs pre-date the Web. However, in the world of Linux culture, I
would think that we would embrace higher level, more modern means of
communication as our heritage.

> Email isn't hypertext; it's text.  To use hypertext, you need a
> hypertext-aware protocol, like HTTP.

Er, no you don't. In fact, HTTP is "hypertext-aware" only because it a)
uses URIs to formulate requests and b) uses MIME enclosures for body
contents in requests and responses. Since MIME has been a standard since
before Linux existed and SMTP has had MIME extensions that are in wide
(dare I saw ubiquitous) use now for almost as long... what's the
difference between HTTP and SMTP with respect to any rich format
(including hypertext formats like HTML)? Would you be happier if SMTP
accepted mailto: URIs instead of naked email addresses (actually, I
would certainly like that, as it would then make sense to "send mail" to
other types of URI)?

> If an MUA can do hypertext, that means it's doubling as a hypertext
> browser.  Just because a MUA can display HTML doesn't mean it can do
> hypertext, nor should it.

If an MUA can do plain text, that means it's doubling as a plain text
browser. Just because an MUA can display ASCII doesn't mean it can do
text... but it should. I fail to see how HTML or SVG interpretation
would be any different (if you think being able to display ASCII and
being able to correctly render text are the same thing, then I suggest
that you and I differ far too much in our real-world experiences to have
this conversation). If you're trying to make the monolithic-vs-modular
argument, then I agree with you, but most modern mailers are in fact
moving toward a modular approach via component systems (like those that
KDE, Gnome and .Net provide). There's no reason for every mailer to re-
invent HTML browsing, though mailers DO have unique concerns which must
be met by the API which they use (e.g. restrictive defaults to prevent
information leaks such as remote image-loading while allowing loading of
images that are bundled with the message).

I used to be a strong opponent of rich email formats due to concerns
about bandwidth and disk space, but I think we've now reached a point
where those concerns (valid though they may be) are outweighed by the
value of richer forms of communication which are available.

PS: I want to make it clear that I don't advocate berating anyone for
using text to send mail that contains URL citations (I do this quite
often). If that's what you prefer, then fine. Any good, modern mail
reader is quite capable of hypertextifying embedded URLs, so it's not
that much of an issue anyway.

Aaron Sherman <ajs@ajs.com>
Mushroom Photography: http://mush.ajs.com/news/

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