ASCII versus HTML. Good-bye ASCII.

It finally happened. Last week at SCUP we received an e-mail message from one of the more than 12,000 subscribers to "SCUP E-mail News" (SEN) asking to be unsubscribed from the weekly higher education planning e-mail newsletter. The writer noted that they would love to be re-subscribed, if and when we resort to an HTML-formatted newsletter. Even though I knew it would be trouble, I shared that bell-weather message with our marketing director, who is already pushing me faster than I wanted to be moved in that direction.

Then, I asked the question, once again, of the UWEBD list of 1,700+ college and university webmasters. As usual, they responded with a great discussion thread, the gist of which was yes, consumers and marketers want HTML e-mail, and pressure is mounting, but that a number of issues involving technology and back-end work, combined with issues relating to spam filters and touchy e-mail servers, still made it more desirable, from their perspectives, to use ASCII in e-mail communications.

Then I read that Bob Bemer, the father of ASCII," among other things, had died in June of 2004, and I thought to myself that we just might be at the point in history where ASCII-formatted e-mail was starting to fade off into history.

Following on the heels of all that, our executive director received a message from one of our volunteer leader members who is a respected consultant on marketing, branding, and communications, the gist of which was that "SCUP E-mail News" has tons of great stuff in it, but he is concerned that people weren't digging deep enough into it to make good use of it - because the ASCII formatting is user-unfriendly.

Guess what? We're moving to an HTML-format by mid-September. Why shouldn't we? Well, I won't make all the arguments against it, but:

  • Since not everyone's e-mail client can read HTML properly, we may disenfranchise some subscribers;
  • Or, if we cater to those who prefer HTML and those who prefer ASCII, then we are involved in the work of formatting the same information in two different ways each week;
  • Plus, the fact that some e-mail servers don't like, on principle apparently, HTML attachments and the growing trend for users to have spam filters (many of which look askance at HTML e-mail) combine to create an unknown number of messages that won't get to readers because of server or client filtering; and
  • There is the old-school thought of saving bandwidth and storage and trying to be a minimalist in everything we do that relates to information technology. Those folks, many of who have been around since punch cards - like Bob Bemer - just have a deep-seated revulsion to making a file larger than it absolutely needs to be.

Why are we moving to HTML formatting? Well, it's sort of that the perception of what is needed (see the previous sentence) and who needs it has changed. You'll note that the two sets of bullet points above do not answer each other. In many respects, they are not even addressing the same issues.

E-mail is everyone's commodity now, everyone's tool, not just for IT folk. That's been true for some time, of course, but just like telephones and printers have moved - in some vague cultural way - from being "information technology" equipment to becoming generic "office equipment," so has e-mail become a generic communications tool that now stands outside of any ownership by IT, although it still requires IT support.

Picture the "Syllabus IT Trends" newsletter that you are reading now. Would you be more or less likely to be reading this if were formatted in ASCII? (That begs the question of whether you are reading this on a monitor or on a piece of paper that you printed out.) The branding and marketing people are telling us that you are paying more attention due to the formatting in HTML, and that:

  • In general, our readers will pay more attention to HTML messages;
  • Such messages, in addition to just being more pleasing to the eye, will better carry our institution's "brand" and marketing messages;
  • We can include hyperlink navigation in the message itself, which means better tables of contents and linkage from the top screen to lower screens;
  • When we get a little more sophisticated, HTML newsletters will tell us more about how our subscribers actually use the information we send them (I am a little unsure about how I feel about that.); and
  • We can place more of the information that is important to us in that top screen of the readers' e-mail clients, thus increasing the likelihood that our message gets through.

And, guess what? Those things matter. They really do matter, in a strategic sense. The mission of our institutions isn't to support IT. The mission of IT is to support our institutions' missions.

I'm going to miss the challenges of formatting in ASCII. Of being limited only to mono-spacing that is no more than 72 characters wide, using only upper and lower case, plus dashes, asterisks, and few other unique characters to provide navigation for readers' eyes.

I wonder, in the year 2014, only ten years from now, how many people will have a clue about what ASCII is (or was), much less be able to write out the full name, on demand, of the "American Standard Code for Information Interchange" (ASCII). Maybe that will only be of interest to historians of technology? If so, those same historians are likely to point back to 2004 and write entire tomes about the significance of this coincidental irony. The death of Bob Bemer, the man who was responsible for the creation and standardization of ASCII, occurred at about the same point in time that HTML-formatted e-mail overtook ASCII-formatted e-mail as a standard of communication.

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