Am I the only person that is bothered by email attachments? I ask the question because I'm of the opinion that the proliferation of word documents, PDFs, installer binaries and other such detritus that litters my and many other people's inbox is an unnecessary and unjustified cancer on the technical infrastructure of enterprises and of the web. Woah, quite a statement you might say so let me attempt to justify it.
I'll begin with a little anecdote. I knew a team where the responsibilities of one of the team members included disseminating information to everyone else in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. He would update the spreadsheet on a near-daily basis and then email a copy of it to all of the other 7 team members. The body of the email explained the changes that had been made.
Here are the problems I have with that approach:
- Every day 8 new copies of the spreadsheet were created. Extrapolate that out over a multi-week project and you can see that there was a lot of pointless drudgery cluttering up and slowing down everyone's inbox [Granted they could just delete old copies but no-one should really have to spend time purging all of this crap]
- Inboxes were synced to a centralised server which meant that all of this pointless disk usage was replicated to multiple places
- The rest of the team only ever saw copies of the spreadsheet. The master copy was (and probably still is) locked up on the guy's personal hard drive.
- The master copy wasn't being backed-up
- The audit trail of changes that had been made to the spreadsheet became scattered over multiple emails and were thus impossible to aggregate
What really bothers me is that this was so completely unnecessary. The team had an internal intranet-based collaboration tool ready and waiting to be used but the culture of the company seemed to be that no-one bothered to use it. Strange given that the company had invested a lot of money in installation and maintenance of said system - I guess there's a lesson here about specifying proper usage guidelines and providing training for the users.
If intranet-based collaboration tools aren't an option for you then there are plenty of free tools out there that you can use instead to host the information that you want to share with other people; Google Docs, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, Box.Net, Listas and Office Live Workspaces being just some of them. They all offer some combination of the following features:
- Permalinks to information (thus there only needs to be one copy of the information)
- Commenting (thus providing the opportunity for an audit history)
- Version history (thus providing the ability to rollback erroneous changes)
As an aside, one feature that I would like to see in these services but that (as far as I know) isn't available in any of them today is resource expiration. i.e. I can specify that the information provided at some permalink disappears after a specified time limit or after a specified amount of activity.
Until the use of such services become commonplace I guess that we're all going to be slaves to email attachments. It all just seems so stupid though. I chortle at the fact that the expenses administrator at one company I know of probably receives in excess of 200 spreadsheet submissions every month via email. I don't know what that person does with them but I suspect its something along the lines of manually saving each and every one of them to some centralised backing store, either that or his inbox is the de facto storage for a significant portion of the workforce's financial records. I'm not sure why all the employees don't all simply submit those spreadsheets to a specified place on the intranet. Take out the middle-person as it were.
So, I'll ask the same question again. Am I the only person that is bothered by email attachments? As ever I would love to read your comments.