What is e-mail for? I ask that rhetorically because I think I know the answer: to communicate information. But this leads to a more complex question: How much information can we communicate using an e-mail message? Moreover, how much information should we be able to communicate?What is e-mail for? I ask that rhetorically because I think I know the answer: to communicate information.But this leads to a more complex question: How much information can we communicate using an e-mail message? Moreover, how much information should we be able to communicate?When e-mail first appeared it was a plain-text medium that, while effective, was deficient in certain important ways that concerned getting a message across. A consequence was that people resorted to ugly devices such as emoticons.Since those early days, e-mail has evolved and Microsoft, more than any other company, has enabled richly formatted e-mail such that it has become commonplace. In Outlook Express and Outlook 200x, Microsoft has always offered RTF and HTML formats, but the majority of users appear to prefer HTML.The adoption of HTML-formatted e-mail was driven primarily by non-technical users who discovered that they could employ backgrounds, animated GIFs and other devices to liven up their e-mail. Developers consequently jumped on the bandwagon and started making e-stationery available, an endeavor that has become a sizable business. I just did a Google search on "email stationery" and got 594,000 hits!At the more normal end of the e-mail-formatting spectrum, users restrict themselves to fonts and their attributes, highlighting, indenting and so forth. I occasionally receive over-designed HTML-formatted e-mail in which the sender has little or no sense for layout, color or even rationality.But as much as I dislike messaging with excessive formatting, I also have to defend people who use it: Anyone using over-the-top e-stationery must think his message is better using it. Anything that improves an e-mail is a good thing, as many people are not good writers. Anything that can get people to spend more time thinking about message content should be welcomed.Formatting also improves an e-mail for competent writers. You can create a table using nothing but ASCII characters, but it will take a lot of time and be far less flexible. HTML makes document layout much easier, which, in turn, usually improves informational value.I raised the issue of ASCII- vs. HTML-formatted e-mail in a mail list I subscribe to and the arguments that came back against HTML mail were interesting. For example, "HTML-only correlates with lack of clue and terrible party skills," wrote one person, and "Is there really any benefit to HTML mail? Can't you express everything you want to say in an e-mail without fancy formatting?"We can assign comments such as "lack of clue" to those who have been on the 'Net a long time. The reason for their distaste of formatting is that they almost exclusively use Unix or Linux and have no need to migrate to newfangled, proprietary platforms (that is, Windows). They belong to what I'll call Old School E-mail.Another prototypical objection is, "Any e-mail that contains automatically executed code is bad." This is true. In fact, the security issues involved are a good argument against the inclusion of any scripting in HTML e-mail.Users who belong to the New School E-mail culture want to have the same flexibility of expression that they have in the real world - they want to send documents that are identical to those they produce with word processors.We recognize that the Old School is unlikely to change, but can we find a safe, expressive medium that satisfies the presentation requirements of the New School and addresses at least some of the Old School's concerns? My suggestions are a limited set of HTML that excludes scripting and Cascading Style Sheets or a technology such as Adobe's Flashpaper.Head over to Gibbsblog and tell me what you think of HTML mail and if there are better solutions. Other thoughts to email@example.com.