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The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

Email Providers Often the Biggest Culprit in Return-Receipt Message Failures

One of my clients who uses a locally installed email client asked me about what he thought was a malfunction in the program. Just in case you do not recognize the term, an email client is software installed on the local computer that gives access to some additional email options not included in the minimal feature set of the webmail interface at email providers like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and others.

Prowling around the options of his email client, my friend discovered that the “return receipt” also called a “read receipt,” a feature that provides the sender with an acknowledgement whenever an email is read by the recipient, was not functioning. People received his emails but he rarely ever received the return receipts.

The truth is, setting up your email provider to give you an email receipt isn’t actually as reliable as it sounds. To explain this to my client, I told him the story about a time I wanted to make sure a registered letter sent through the post office was delivered into the hands of the person to whom it was addressed. I paid the fee to send a registered letter and thus to get back one of those green postcards called a “return receipt” once it had been delivered. There was also an option to check the box that stated “Deliver only to addressee,” so I gladly paid for that too. I received the return receipt in the mail, signed for not by the person to whom it was supposed to be delivered, but by someone else. I marched down to the post office to make a complaint, whereupon I was tersely informed that all deliveries were made at the discretion of the letter carrier. If they wanted to permit a secretary, the janitor, or anyone else to sign for a registered letter, that was a postal employee’s prerogative.

Email works exactly the same way. The network engineers and standards organizations that formalize the operational rules for email have provided a system for return receipts; but using it this is an option for email providers and not obligatory.

My client had found a configuration option in his software to “require return receipt.” I asked him to continue exploring configuration options, and he found another optional configuration. This one said, “Ignore return receipt requests from others.” His mail program had both the ability to request that others send him a return receipt and to ignore requests by others that he send them an acknowledgement. Finding both of those options available in the same email software sums up why email return receipts are not a reliable way to verify delivery.

Most free email systems, e.g., Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo, simply ignore the return receipt feature. It is easy to see the logic: the return feature does not work reliably, and so those companies obviously do not want customers lining up to ask why receipt of their emails is never acknowledged.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com

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