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Images, Email, and Internet Mysteries

If you're reading this column, you're probably (a) interested in photography, and (b) interested in computers. If both of these are true, then (c) you've almost certainly experienced fits of rage at your email system. How often have you tried to send or receive a picture as an email "attachment", only to end up staring at a screen full of gibberish? This month, we'll show you how to banish the gibberish, but be forewarned: There's a lot of computerese ahead, and precious little photography!

What's the big deal with pictures?
While the internet is a "new" technology relative to things like cars and toasters, many aspects of it have been around for quite a few years. When you remember that "internet years" happen three or four times faster than "dog years", it's obvious that some parts of the internet are positively ancient. Email is one of these.
The problems we have with email and images occur because the basic email protocols were never designed to handle anything other than simple text messages. So-called ASCII text is convenient for computers because it can represent all the characters in the English language and still have space left over in each computer "byte" for necessary control codes.
When it comes to pictures though, the image data needs every last "bit" of space, meaning there's none left over to tell the mail system where messages start and end. What to do? Rather than fix the basic mail system, programmers figured out a clever way to convert image data into text so standard mail software could handle it. The only problem is that it has to be translated (or "encoded") going in, and re-translated (or "decoded") coming back out. This is where and why things get complicated when shipping images around between systems: While most current versions of internet email software can handle this encoding and decoding automatically, some major on-line services (like AOL) don't, requiring the use of "helper" applications to make the switch. (AOL's forthcoming version 4.0 will have image-handling built into it, but knowing how long even I've resisted upgrading to version 3.0 on my Mac, it'll likely be a long while before everybody is using 4.0. To help you in the meantime, we'll look at how to convert "encoded" pictures from the internet back into something you can look at on your computer.
Some Assumptions
In the following, we're going to assume that you're either using a relatively recent release of an internet email program, such as Qualcomm's Eudora(tm) or Microsoft's Outlook Express(tm), or a reasonably recent version of AOL's software, say version 2.6 or later. If you're running a creaky, ancient internet mail program, get it updated! - There's no reason to struggle with outdated email software, when the benefits of having something up-to-date are so great. If you're running AOL software prior to version 2.6, you should definitely consider updating to version 3.0 (just make a complete backup copy of everything first).
Most of what we'll be talking about here involves crossing from AOL to other services and back again, although some of it will be pertinent even to direct AOL-to-AOL connections. (In our testing for this article, we found that internet-only email went pretty smoothly without most of the gyrations needed going in or out of AOL.)
Format First!
Before you send pictures across the internet, get them into a form guaranteed to be readable on the other end, and that doesn't take up too much space. The common JPEG format is the answer here: We won't go into any details, but suffice to say that you should consider JPEG mandatory for email - don't even think about BMPs, TIFFs, etc, unless you have special requirements. If you have picture in something other than JPEG, use yor imaging software to convert it to JPEG before you send it.
Encoding - Ignorance is Bliss!
Fortunately, at least part of the process is reasonably straightforward, regardless of where you're sending your pictures from: Both internet email clients and the AOL email system handle the process of "attaching" images to messages pretty automatically. The process is straightforward: Look for the "attach file" button or menu entry on your email software, click on it, and then navigate to the file that you want to attach. That's it! You can attach either one or multiple files, but more on the multiple-file issue later...
A Special Note for Mac Users
If you're a Mac user, you have an extra decision or two to make as part of the attachment process: Some of the cool things the Mac can do with files depend on having the file data in two separate parts, or "forks." We're not going to go into this here, but the fact that Mac files are different from PC ones means that you have a couple of choices about how to send them. As you can see from the accompanying screen shot from the Mac version of Eudora Pro, you can select from a couple of different types of encoding, and whether or not to include Mac-specific information. If you know that the person you're sending the picture(s) to has a Mac, you can use the "binhex" encoding option and/or choose to "Always include Macintosh information". This will help the receiving Mac automatically recognize file types, preserve custom file icons, etc. On the other hand, if there's a chance the pictures will end up on the PC side of the world, always select "Uuencode" for the encoding method, and don't choose the "always include Mac information" option. (These instructions are particular to Eudora, but you'll find similar options in most other Mac email programs.)
On the Receiving End
With most modern internet email client software, receiving pictures should be no problem either: They'll either be displayed in-line with the written message, or at worst, extracted and dumped on your hard disk for viewing in another program. Until AOL version 4.0 comes out though, AOL users have a few more steps to run through, to "decode" the image files.
On the PC side, a big part of the solution is to get yourself a copy of the excellent shareware program "WinZip," from Niko Mak Computing. It's a free download just about anywhere on the 'net, but if you use it, you need to register it with Niko Mak for $29.95. (It's well worth it!)
If you receive just a single JPEG file, chances are it will appear with its original file name ("file.jpg"), but encoded into something other than a JPEG format. The drill here is simple: Go to Windows Explorer, and change the ".jpg" in the file name to ".uue" - This will let WinZip recognize it as an encoded file, and deal with it properly. Once the file is renamed, just open it in WinZip, and save the image file encoded inside back to disk.
If you more than one picture was sent to you in the same email, the attachment downloaded to your disk will have a file extension of ".mim" (eg, "file.mim"). This stands for a "Multipart Internet Mail Extenson", or MIME file. This case is actually simpler, since WinZip recognizes MIME files directly: Just open the MIME file in WinZip, and extract the images you'll find inside.

On the Mac side, the "universal encoder/decoder" program equivalent to WinZip is StuffIt Deluxe, by Aladdin systems, a commercial program that typically sells for $59 or so. The great news though, is that if all you need is to decode files, a decoding-only version (StuffIt Expander) is completely free and available from many sites on the web. With the Mac, you don't have to worry about file extensions (the ".jpg" or ".uue"), but can just open the received files with the decoding program exactly as they arrived.
Minor Points
After all the above, if you still run into trouble, here are a few miscellaneous pointers: Although multiple pictures per email generally come across as the more-easily interpreted MIME format, you may find with some services that one picture per message is the only thing that will work. If you're having no luck with multiple images, drop back and try just a single image per email. Also, given the choice, you should probably use the "attach" command in your email program explicitly, rather than dragging and dropping. This will insure that the picture appears as an attachment, rather than being encoded "in-line." You'll find that some email programs give you the option of compressing transmitted files. Unless you know in advance this works between your program and that of the party on the receiving end, avoid it at all costs! - There are too many different possibilities for file compression, making the likelihood of success low. Finally, if all else fails, and the mail must go through, see if you can arrange a way to get it there without crossing the boundaries of different services: While AOL is recalcitrant about binary files coming from the internet, it has no problem with such files travelling within its boundaries, from one member to another.
Nothing beats the immediacy of email for sharing pictures with friends and family. Unfortunately, the results for most people are frustruation and disappointment. This needn't be the case: Check out the tips and helper programs mentioned in this month's article, and you'll soon be burning up the lines with megabytes of magnificant pictures!

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