Saturday, September 1, 2007

Have you seen my "mailto:" links?

The masses have spoken, and the have chosen The Web. Well, frankly, developers have spoken and they've chosen the
Web also, and little surprise, really: show me a programmer that would rather muck with visual form editors than write text (even if it's markup text) to stdout and I'll find you 10 that are the other way around. I've decided I'm fine with Webization, despite my earlier rantings against it. Although the Web can be clumsy as an application platform it offers something very important, a consistent and universal UI element, a theme running through all of its applications: the hyperlink. Whoever came up with the idea of blue, underlined link text really struck gold: even in non-web applications underlined text has come to signify that clicking it will take you somewhere, often to a web page. In my high school class some honors English students turned in papers with blue underlined text in the middle and the teacher, who had probably lived without the Web for at least 80% of her life, immediately recognized that the students had copied and pasted sections of their papers from a Web site.

Over the last few years I've become accustomed to seeing the increasing complexity of individual web pages drive away the simple tags that the Perl jockeys of yore coerced out of their cryptic scripts. Just as less and less Unix time is spent issuing two-letter commands, less and less Web formatting is done with <b>, with <i>, and more with monstrosities like <span style="font-weight:bold;"> and <span style="font-style:italic;"> (these are what Blogger produces if you ask for bold or italic text; they would appear to be semantically equivalent, but they probably affect the DOM in different ways). But at least those old tags still basically do what you'd expect, no matter what awful things the W3C says about their use. There's one kind of tag that's for all practical purposes been broken by the Web: <a href="mailto:">.

Ironic, isn't it? The disappearance of classic email clients and rise of webmail, that is, email's move onto the Web, has broken hyperlinking! Because the mailto: directive tells the client browser, "Make an email happen; I don't care how," and the traditional Web hyperlink means, "Go to this specific page and I know you'll love it!"

There are, of course, programs that make mailto: do the right thing. One was installed on my family's computer by SBC with their DSL connection suite a long time ago. But just this morning my mom clicked on a mailto: link and got Outlook Express asking her for her email server information. SBC's software didn't survive; there may have been a full OS re-install in the middle somewhere, or at least a major browser re-install.

These solutions aren't good enough, because they'll never be distributed widely enough. Getting mailto: links right these days the job of the browser, given the browser's current role as the center of all Internet client programs. I think that to facilitate this there ought to be a standard way for browsers to address webmail services, so that a user can just type in a simple URL into the standard preferences form and get mailto: working properly, whether the URL points to gmail or to some crazy homebrew IMAP frontend behind a noip address.

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