Crappy e-mail from the iTunes Music Store

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Macintosh, Mail, Technology
April 4th, 2006 • 9:47 am

Today I got an e-mail from the iTunes Music Store (sender: <>) about a “Red Hot Chili Peppers Double Album Pre-Order and Concert Ticket Promotion.”

I am not sure I gave them permission to send me promotional e-mails, but let’s assume I did. The problem is with the e-mail message itself.

First of all, you need to know that I don’t like HTML-formatted e-mail and I have set Mail to automatically display the plain text version of incoming e-mails by default.

I have several reasons for this. One is that HTML-formatted e-mail is typically formatted with PC-optimized formatting options, which means that the text is usually to small to read on the Mac.

Another reason is the fact that HTML-formatted e-mail often includes embedded pictures. For security reasons, I don’t want Mail to be able to automatically downloaded stuff from the Web whenever I open an e-mail message, so I have unchecked the option to “Display remote images in HTML messages” by default. This means that, if I want to see the pictures embedded in an HTML-formatted message, I have to click on the “Download Images” button that appears in the top-right corner when I open an HTML message. HTML messages can usually be read without the embedded images, but it can sometimes be a pain, especially if the author of the e-mail message used background pictures and coloured text.

Then there is the fact that I am still on a dial-up connection and that downloading images takes extra time. And the fact that character font and size in e-mail messages should be my choice and not the choice of the sender of the e-mail. And…

I have plenty of other reasons not to like HTML e-mail. The bottom-line is that my copy of Mail is set to display the plain-text alternative by default—when there is one, that is. All HTML e-mail messages should include a plain-text alternative, but in many cases they do not, probably due to a combination of poorly designed e-mail authoring software and user ignorance.

The problem with Apple’s e-mails is not that there isn’t a plain-text alternative. In the iTunes Music Store message above, there was a plain text alternative. The problem is that this plain-text alternative was crap. First of all, it was full of empty lines because each paragraph was separated from the next by not one paragraph mark, not two paragraph marks, but four paragraph marks.

Ugh. So of course a message that should easily fit in the window ends up being way too long and forcing me to scroll down. I already noted a similar problem with Apple Developer Connection e-mails. The problem with the double returns in the ADC e-mails started more than a year ago. I sent several messages to complain about this. They still haven’t fixed the problem. It seems to me that developers, of all people, should be more than aware of such issues with double, or triple, or quadruple return characters in plain-text e-mails. But what can you do?

So obviously I don’t have much of an incentive to try and contact the iTunes Music Store about this particular problem in their e-mails. If they can’t get it right in the ADC e-mails, I don’t expect that the iTunes marketing folks can ever get it right. In any case, I cannot even find a place on the web to submit feedback on such issues. (The only feedback place that I found was for requesting new music to be added to the store.)

The other problem with the plain text e-mail alternative of the iTunes Music Store was that the accented characters were all screwed up. I am in Canada, so I get my mail from the Canadian iTunes Music Store. And of course, in Canada, we are officially a bilingual country, so messages in English tend to include a small blurb in French as well. Well, here’s what the plain-text French blurb looks like:

Tous droits rservs:

Engagement de confidentialit :

Conditions gnrales du service:

Conditions gnrales de vente:

Demandes et commentaires du Music Store:

Tlchargez iTunes: MZStore.iTunesDownloadURL

Transfrer un ami:

Inscrivez-vous Nouveauts musicales du mardi: MZNewsLetter.translateSubscribeURL

Mettez jour votre abonnement:

Se dsinscire:

Oops. As you can see, even if you don’t know much French, there is something very wrong with the French text. All the accented characters have simply disappeared. For example, the first line should read “Tous droits réservés” and not “Tous droits rservs.”

Needless to say, if you switch to the HTML alternative of the e-mail, the French text looks just fine. This is a problem that affects the plain-text alternative only. The tool that generates the plain-text alternative is probably using some antique software routine that completely fails to process characters outside the 7-bit ASCII range properly. (The HTML alternative is encoded in ISO-8859-1, i.e. ISO-Latin-1.)

I know it is a small issue and most iTunes users probably don’t care, because Mail probably displays the HTML alternative on their computers by default, and most of them are fine with that. But it’s yet another sign that plain-text e-mail is becoming more and more neglected.

I already mentioned the other day that the e-mail notifications that I got from AppleCare for my replacement keyboard were badly encoded as well, with the plain-text alternative actually containing some left-over HTML code from the HTML alternative!

Sooner or later, I guess that I too will be forced to switch to HTML e-mail. It really annoys me, because I believe that my reasons for preferring plain-text e-mail are perfectly valid and will remain so for many years to come. But if plain-text e-mail becomes less and less usable, we simply won’t have any other alternative. And Apple will have a certain amount of responsibility in this.

One Response to “Crappy e-mail from the iTunes Music Store”

  1. Hawk Wings » Blog Archive » Betalogue ponders slow death of plain text says:

    […] It prompts him to provide a good / cranky summary (depending on whether you are a plain text / HTML person) of reasons to dislike HTML emails. […]

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