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When we take e-mail for granted, we minimize its effectiveness.
Somebody once said we should all stop looking for the "killer app" of the Internet, because it's already here and staring us in the face. That's right: I'm talking about e-mail. Forget Java, ActiveX, VRML, RealAudio, push technology and every other trend of the moment. Plain old e-mail has been the tool of choice for so many users performing so many tasks for so long that it's easy to forget just how much we rely on it. Its ubiquity and utility have made it the Internet equivalent of electricity in modern life.
So, if e-mail is the key to digital nirvana, why do so many people have a love/hate relationship with it? Simple: Even with the best intentions, e-mail is a double-edged sword that can instill chaos as it brings order.
Herewith my three most sacred e-mail commandments:
Thou shalt not play mailbox hopscotch. At least twice a month, I receive replies to mail I sent weeks earlier, informing me that the addressee's account is no longer "active" and will be shut down "soon." This wastes everyone's time and can be positively maddening. If you have more than one e-mail address, give out only the one that you're most likely to maintain long-term. If you stop using an account, shut it down or have your ISP forward your mail to another account. And if you simply can't avoid leapfrogging between accounts, consider signing up for a free aliasing service, like Bigfoot (http://www.bigfoot.com), which will copy and forward your e-mail to as many as five accounts. (On a related note, here's a word for those people-and you know who you are-who copy the known universe on every message "just to be sure" and "because it's free": Don't. It's not free; gratuitous copying adds to the Net's cholesterol problem and forces everyone to burn precious time scanning and deleting unnecessary e-mail. And in the process, this glorified spamming makes both you and your company look bad.)
Thou shalt not keep an inactive server. A couple of messages I sent out recently were rejected because they apparently exceeded the multi-megabyte limit the servers could handle. In both cases, the messages involved only 100 keystrokes. This is a time killer of the worst sort, because it forces your faithful correspondent to make a phone call just to say, "Your server's busted." If you manage your company's server, make sure your e-mail size limit is working properly. Although limits are often a very good thing, you should take two minutes to run a quick test whenever you upgrade your server or change its limit. It's a simple process: Just send two e-mail messages to someone on your server, making sure one is slightly below the limit, one slightly above. It's far better to find such trouble spots yourself than to hear about it from a few hundred people outside the company.
Thou shalt not ignore thy correspondence-even when out of the office. People who get my e-mail but don't answer it for weeks are the worst transgressors. (Anyone who does this in the middle of a running e-mail conversation should be forced to work on a PC XT with a 9-inch amber screen.) If you'll only be offline for a couple of days, don't sweat it. But if you won't be responding for, say, a week-and certainly if it'll be longer than that-make arrangements to have someone else cover your e-mail. Or have your server automatically respond with an "answering machine" type of note that tells people when you'll be back. One editor I know has his server do this all the time, even when he's in town and answering mail quickly. Overkill? Hardly. At a time when we're hearing about commercial service and major ISP outages almost every day, it's nice to let people know their e-mail arrived-even if the response is a form note they've already seen 500 times. Besides, it prods you to reply faster.
See, it's all common sense. If you use just a little foresight-and the technical tools you have at your disposal-e-mail can shave precious minutes, hours, even days from your schedule. Now that's nirvana.
Contributing editor Lou Grinzo is president of Lou Grinzo Technologies, a computer consulting and contract programming firm, and author of Zen of Windows 95 Programming (Coriolis Group, 1995). Contact Lou care of the editor at the e-mail address here or the addresses on page 20.