Wed., NOV. 7. TECH Tip. 2007.

Email Is Letter-Size
In a Big-Parcel World,
But Help Is Coming
November 7, 2007; Page B1


Ah, to be in Seoul and able to email over residential fiber optics -- and order up some
home-delivered kalbi at the same time.

Computer files are getting bigger. PDFs and PowerPoint stacks are now the size of small tropical islands. Turn on a video camera, and you're into gigabytes in minutes.

Move around these drives in your computer: Can do. But drop them into an email and the computer falls to the ground, panting and pleading for mercy. The sad truth is that email attachments aren't keeping up with file sizes or disk drives. It's like being able to mail 12-ounce envelopes, but no parcels or boxes.

Help is on the way, but first, some background to the problem.

Behind the scenes, the Web is a hodge-podge of different pieces of software. Unfortunately, the programs that coordinate mail transfer between servers happen to be among the quirkiest and least tolerant of all of them. This is partly because of email's roots as a plain-vanilla messaging system for academics, says Eric Allman, who worked in the 1980s on early emailing software and now is chief science officer for corporate-email software provider Sendmail, of Emeryville, Calif.

One minor example: Email software communicates in seven-bit units, because text comes in seven-bit chunks. Regular data files, like those for pictures, come in eight bits, requiring that they be converted back and forth when emailed as attachments.

The bigger limitation on email attachment sizes, though, involves the realities of today's post-spam, post-Sarbanes-Oxley world. In theory, email systems are set up to take anything sent to them. But their administrators usually limit attachment sizes, lest servers fill up with junk.


What's more, the spam-detection process itself takes up a lot of processor time, especially with large files. Those are sometimes loaded in and inspected -- another reason for a size cap. And because regulators now require companies to save email, bosses prefer as little of it as possible.


The upshot is that emailing big attachments requires stealth and guile -- like breaking it into smaller chunks or using Photoshop to reduce the pixel count of a photo. The ubiquitous FTP file software that's available free on the Web easily handles big files, but it has the reputation for being unwieldy to administer, leading many email bosses not to bother with it.

As always, one person's problem is another's market opportunity. A number of companies, with all manner of business plans and technology models, are in the business of being for email what UPS is for regular mail.

One, Accellion, of Palo Alto, Calif., works with large corporate and ad-agency customers, installing special servers on their sites to handle the transfer of big files. Annual costs can exceed $100,000.

More consumer-oriented companies include YouSendIt, funded by Silicon Valley venture capitalists with 85 employees. SendThisFile, by contrast, was started by two guys from Wichita, Kan., and has just four full-timers.

Those two, and many like them, use a simple system. To send a large file, you first upload it to the company's server, and then send a regular email to the recipient with a link. Click on the link, and the file is downloaded, though not by email. Another approach is taken by Pando, which installs peer-to-peer software that, in some cases, can help with a big file transfer.

These companies usually let you send a file of a gigabyte or two -- free -- and have tiered plans after that, often starting around $10 or $15 a month.

Uploads and downloads should happen as quickly as your Internet can allow. Seat belts aren't necessary -- at least not in the U.S., with its lame national broadband. Emailing a 600-megabyte, high-resolution picture, or about as much data as in a regular, uncompressed, music CD, took me more than two hours.
Ah, to be in Seoul and able to email over residential fiber optics -- and order up some home-delivered kalbi at the same time.

The prosaic matter of transmitting big files may not seem like much of a long-term business, but these companies have grand plans. Officials at YouSendIt say its technology can ultimately be used as "a platform for document-based workflow," giving it a promising future in the buzzword business in case the email thing doesn't work out.

This discussion has so far avoided mention of Microsoft, which in email, as in so much else, brings its traditional mixture of pleasure and pain. Most companies use Microsoft's back-end mail server products and, frankly, that's one more reason mail attachment size hasn't kept up with the era of $350 terabyte drives.

Upgrading to bigger disks with Microsoft's Exchange Server is as easy as a kidney transplant. However, Will Kennedy, general manager of the Outlook team, says new versions make these administrative chores vastly easier.

Not long ago, sending photos to the grandparents (the example typically cited when discussing sending large files, at least in polite company) was a hit-or-miss affair. Now, it's routine, just as emailing gigabyte-size video attachments will be one day.

But when?

Soon, at least inside big companies, says Mr. Kennedy. In homes, he guesses, it's still five years away.

?Email me at lee.gomes@wsj.com1

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photo of UCLA. ROYCE HALL,
NOV. 10, SAT. 2007
2007-11-10 12:06:54
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