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Outlook and winmail.dat

In the legal world in the Netherlands the importance of email and websites is slowly starting to emerge. Of course, the huge, almost American-style law firms are using these techniques for years and years now, but the smaller law firms and the government itself always had a negative standing towards these modern day communication channels.

One of the most common complaints was the fact that the channels were not secure (this was one of the statements around the year 2000 while the rest of the world was starting to live and breath online). Now (2008) they are slowly dumping the fax machines (like those are secure) in favor of email. One of the things that became clear was the fact that they started using plain email. No PGP, no encryption, no secure mail storage - none of the above, which sort of surprised me (still does in fact).

If I have to be honest, both the fax and email are methods of communication that are pretty hard to intercept. You would need some decent skills to get even close to intercepting the communication and even now, the most important documents (originals and private documents) are still sent by postal mail. Thats right, normal old-skool hard copies. Probably one of the safest ways to sent stuff like that around. The only downside: transport can take a while, making rush jobs impossible (you probably would not want that anyway).

But I'm starting to side track here. The point is that they are finally starting to use email. Normal (status) communication is handled this way, think listings and charts, and has replaced the printed out versions that were driven between offices in the past. The downside of it all is the fact that these forms are now send around in Microsoft Word format, making conversions between offices error prone (try to explain that to them: Word = Word in the mind of an average legal secretary) and in fact, those errors have occured before. Think pages gone missing, tables out of alignment making the data useless etc. Mix in Open Office and you have yourself quite the party. I tried to explain that PDF might be a good option as prepared lists don't need to be altered after they've been mailed to another office, but that suggestion has as much chance of becoming reality as me winning the lottery.

But that is the sort of crap we can handle. Everyone knows it is flawed so they expect problems. But now someone at the court of justice found the option in Microsoft Outlook to use RTF for the mailings. Probably to make pretty colors appear in the mailings or something. The result: the message (in RTF format) and the attachments are compiled into a winmail.dat binary and sent along with the plain text message.

Now, Outlook (and maybe Outlook Express) can do something with that, however Mozilla Thunderbird can not (any non-Microsoft mailer for that matter). I tried installing a 3rd party TNEF decoder, which worked but required a lot of extra steps. I finally found this Thunderbird add-on called LookOut, which in fact is an embedded TNEF decoder. After installing, any winmail.dat attachment found in a email will be decoded on the fly - showing the components inside as separate attachments.

Even though this sort of provides a work around, tomorrow I'll call the department and have them check out who sent those mails. It a P.I.T.A. to fix each quirk those idiots come up with and frankly - they should get their act together, not all the law firms in The Netherlands have someone to fix these kinds of issues...