Are Attachments Bad by Definition?

Yesterday I advised people not to open e-mail file attachments. I called them antisocial wasters of bandwidth and time, and potentially dangerous — the latter attribute being obvious in the wake of the ever-morphing worm (AP) that disrupted mail around the world yesterday and is still making the rounds today under new guises.

Several readers said I was too sweeping in my denunciation of viruses, that some attachments are perfectly safe and not antisocial. In particular, they said, image files such as JPEGs and GIFs are harmless, as are PDF documents.

I agree that such files are harmless. But they also consume lots of bandwidth that is unpleasant to deal with when I’m traveling and away from my fast office connection.

I have no objection to attachments when both parties have agreed to them. Some communications have to be sent this way. I do object to having attachments sent when I haven’t agreed in advance.

Ideally, if you want me to see some picture or download some kind of document, it should live on a your own Website or FTP server from which I can retrieve it. I realize this is too complicated for most users. What we need are tools that let anyone easily post such material. Then they can send text-based e-mails with URLs to other people. The advantages — in preserving bandwidth and safety — seem apparent to me.

Several readers also told me I should not have let Microsoft off the hook. Actually, I said I thought Microsoft should do more to improve the safety of its software, but noted that any product with such enormous market share would be the obvious target for the jerks who create viruses and worms.

I am more sympathetic to arguments that the mono-culture of software in which we now live — a Microsoft ecosystem — is less safe by definition than a more diverse ecosystem. That’s true in many ways. The question is whether what we gain with standards is worth what we lose in other ways. What are on this?

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