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E-mail for the young at heart

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 15, 2004
(Issue 2242, Computing Weirdness)

Let's face it – Microsoft's Outlook is the 500 pound gorilla of e-mail clients. It ships with every copy of Windows (at least Outlook Express), and so just about everyone has copy of it. You don't have to go to the store to buy it, nor download it or install it.

It's just there, and it works, even if it isn't all that secure (OK, not secure at all), for most of us the convenience outweighs the drawbacks.

Besides, Outlook offers a more full-featured aesthetic experience than, say, text-based e-mail programs like The Bat or Eudora. You can use 'stationery" and icons to give your e-mail a more personalized look and feel than you can in the text-based programs. And while the Web-based e-mail servers come close, it's still a hit or miss proposition on how your message will display with the stationery and icons. Only AOL users have a more feature-rich e-mail environment, and then that's only with other AOL users.

Another alternative

But now Windows users can have all the bells and whistles of AOL or Outlook without the ongoing security headaches of Outlook.

IncrediMail is a free, advertising-supported e-mail client that allows you to send and receive e-mails with all the visual eye candy of AOL or Outlook. Animated smilies, full-color stationery, even embedded sounds.

For kids or people new to and/or uncomfortable with computers, the IncrediMail interface is as intuitive and easy to navigate as any I've found. The user interface is bright and sunny with large icons that are clearly labeled and intelligently located.

The program itself is a likely a bit of a system hog - every action is accompanied by animated sequences. Send an e-mail, and the window pane of that message first rolls up like an old-fashioned window shade, while a bouncy noise plays in the background. When you type, you get the tone of a Smith Corona or Remington striking the patten with each keystroke (and that gets annoying pretty quick on a long message).

Most of these features seem customizable, meaning you can turn them off if you like.

Practical universality

While you can, as mentioned, send messages on personalized stationery (basically a background image or images) and with animated smiley faces and other icons, there's no guarantee how your recipient will be able to view them. I sent a test message to the seven or eight different accounts I've managed to accumulate, and found a wide array of results. Gmail and Yahoo didn't display any of the images; instead offering me a list of them. Hotmail displayed them, but in a column following the text message, not embedded in that message. The Bat always displays images oddly, so I didn't put much stock in that (although there is a new version of The Bat I've not yet checked out – perhaps that will offer an improvement).

But the above is no different than my experience at sending rich media messages from Outlook or AOL to non-Outlook or non-AOL accounts (or even sending Outlook to AOL or vice versa); what you see isn't always what your recipient gets.

And so on that score, IncrediMail is no worse than the other two.

While IncrediMail claims 40 million users worldwide, not everyone who downloads uses, obviously – but that's still a pretty good install base, even if only 1 out of every 4 downloaders ends up using the program long-term.

But – as with AOL and Outlook – IncrediMail obviously isn't going to become the e-mail client of everyone. So none of these options is truly universal in terms of being able to send and receive consistently formatted messages that appear to the recipient the way they appeared to the sender.

HTML is more powerful than ever in terms of design, but few e-mail programs incorporate advanced HTML design tools like Cascading StyleSheets or the ability to create layers with objects. Adding these elements to e-mail would be fairly easy from a display standpoint, but this kind of interactivity opens up new problems with e-mail security – already an iffy proposition.

Other challenges

I also had problems getting IncrediMail to hook up to my Web host's outgoing (SMTP) mail server; my ISP's SMTP server worked fine with it, however. I've also found that IncrediMail changes your Windows settings so that it automatically launches when you turn your PC on, and attaches itself to your Windows toolbar. Turning it off can be a bit of a pain.

But I didn't find any warnings about spyware or other undesirable 'features" on the Web in doing a search on IncrediMail. It would appear to be what its publisher offers it as: an advertising-supported free e-mail client, similar to Eudora in its business model but much closer to Outlook or AOL in its ability to create slick, fancy electronic messages.