By EmailSherpa Technology Columnist Alexis D. Gutzman
I remember the first time I heard about "the sniffer." I was
interviewing the VP of Marketing for one of the major email-
marketing-services vendors. How, I asked him, did they know which version
of a message to send to each member of a list?
He told me they had a sniffer, which would automatically sense whether
a recipient could receive HTML (which looks like a Web
page in your inbox), and deliver that, or if not, deliver plain text (like
this newsletter). When I asked for details, he told me
it was proprietary technology, but I could talk to the CTO.
How sexy! A sniffer! What a scoop I would have!
I had visions of software that somehow overcame the basic problem of
email, which is that it's a one-way communication from the
sender to the recipient . . . unless the recipient chooses to make it
Email is different from the Web. When a visitor goes to a Web site, Internet
Explorer or Netscape send the Web site information
about the visitor. Any cookies that were planted by the Web site on a
previous visit, along with the language of the visitor (US
English, for example), the Web browser type and version (Internet Explorer
5.5, for example), and other information about the
visitor's computer. On the Web, even viewing a Web page requires a bit
of a dialog behind the scenes between the software
requesting the page and the software delivering the page. There's nothing
comparable that goes on when you send email.
THE SHORT INTERVIEW WITH THE CTO
I looked forward to my interview with the CTO, sure that they had devised
a clever end-run around the inherent one-way nature of
email. As it turned out, the conversation was short: "How does your
sniffer work, since email doesn't pass back any
information about the recipient, the way the Web server knows about the
"We don't actually have a sniffer. We just use that term so that
marketing can explain it better to customers."
No sniffer? Of course there's no sniffer. Yet just about every broadcast
email vendor uses the term, because it's great