By Jeremy Wagstaff, 22 May 2003
This column first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review
(Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc., used with permission)
If you have any obsessive/compulsive tendencies, you probably should stop reading now. If you don't, I have a solution to questions you're bound to have asked yourself at one point or another, such as "Has the boss read my e-mail asking for a raise yet?" or "How can I check that everyone got the invite to my Tupperware party?" and "Why hasn't Auntie Mabel thanked me for my thoughtful, but somewhat cheap, birthday e-greeting?". The answer: MSGTAG.
No, it's not compulsory labelling for monosodium glutamate, that charming flavour enhancer. MSGTAG is short for MessageTag, and it's a way to see whether or not e-mails have been read by the recipient. Right now, if you send an e-mail you have little or no way of checking whether someone received it, let alone actually read it. Some programs allow you to request an automatic acknowledgement that an e-mail's been received -- or even opened -- but the option depends a lot on what software the recipient is using, and the settings. Most of the time you're firing blind when you send an e-mail.
Enter MessageTag, from New Zealand software-development company eCOSM Ltd. Install the MSGTAG software and, in most cases, it will automatically reconfigure your e-mail software to add a glob of code to the bottom of any e-mail you send (to those of you in the know, it's an HTML image reference) which assigns the e-mail a unique ID number. When the recipient opens their e-mail, the glob of code sends a message back to the MSGTAG server, or computer. That computer makes a note of the ID, and the time the message was received. It then matches the ID with the MSGTAG user, and the matching e-mail, and notifies the user the e-mail has been opened, and when. Voila.
I found it worked like a charm. The free version does the final step -- sending a notification that an e-mail has been opened -- by e-mail, whereas the fully functioning version, called MSGTAG Status, runs a separate program that lists all the e-mails you've sent, and then flags those that have been opened.
To me it's a very useful tool. Having to alert friends that a party had been cancelled at the last minute, I was able to monitor who had opened their e-mails and who hadn't. Sending e-mail to PR folk suddenly gets a lot easier since I can tell who has opened it and who is ignoring me, and who has either moved, died, or hasn't yet figured how to use the e-mail program.
The basic idea is not new. Several other companies offer similar products: the most promising, HaveTheyReadItYet (www.havetheyreadityet.com), only works with Outlook and Outlook Express for now, though other versions are planned. The free version allows users to monitor the progress of five e-mails at a time; more than that and you have to buy digital stamps at $5 each. Another option is SentThere , which allows you either to send and monitor e-mails in the same way as MSGTAG, or to use a special mini-e-mail program. I couldn't get this one to work. Other products, such as South Korea-based Postel and OpenTrace didn't respond to e-mail queries, an irony not lost on me.
Still, after using MSGTAG for a week, I was hooked. Which is where the obsessive/compulsive bit comes in. I found myself eagerly monitoring my "Status" window to see whether my e-mail had been read, and then found myself wondering why the person hadn't replied immediately. One guy, a friend I hadn't heard from for nearly a decade, opened my mail but still, nearly a week on, hasn't written back. He is definitely not coming to my wedding, if I have one. I can see all sorts of new neuroses coming out of all this.
That's not the only danger. Privacy advocates claim it's an invasion of privacy to covertly monitor when an e-mail is read. Beyond that, the argument goes, users could also find out other information about, for example, whether and to whom the e-mail may be forwarded and how long they spent reading the e-mail ("What? They only spent 10 seconds reading my account of my summer trip to Graceland?").
I don't really see this is a privacy issue. Send a text message from many hand-phones and you can obtain a message informing you of its delivery -- which only works when the phone is switched on and in the coverage area. Likewise, sending registered mail, or packages, enables the sender to obtain similar information. Users may take some getting used to this, but I think it can only enhance the usefulness of e-mail to have some way of checking whether it actually ended up where it was supposed to.
That said, I do have some gripes: At $60 the Status program is a bit steep. And it will only work if you are using HTML e-mail -- the fancy version where you can change font styles, insert pictures and view Web-page-style newsletters. And MSGTAG won't, for now, work on Microsoft Exchange servers, undermining its effectiveness for corporate users. Having said all that, I found most MSGTAG e-mails worked, and now I'm not sure what I'll do without it. Of course, I'm now losing sleep sitting in front of the PC monitoring whether my e-mails are getting read. Don't tell me I didn't warn you.
June 26 2003: MSGTAG is no longer available in a free version. Read on here.
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