With e-mails, there are no strings ‘attached’

FI-Log-On-With-Larry-SchneiderDear Larry,

Sometimes I’m unable to open an e-mail attachment. Can you tell me what I might be doing wrong? 


Dear F.S.,

Let’s address the most common reasons why people run into e-mail attachment problems.

1. The attachment was sent with the wrong “extension.”

As you’re probably aware, information is stored on a computer in files, be they word processing documents, spreadsheets, programs, etc. Each of these files has a name associated with it along with a three-character extension (often hidden from view), which follows a period at the end of the file’s name: for instance, “My Document.doc,” “Joe’s Spreadsheet.xlw,” or “Acrobat Reader File.pdf.”

These extensions are used by Windows to determine with which program the file is associated. So in the examples above, a file ending in .doc tells Windows it’s a Microsoft Word document, .xlw refers to a Microsoft Excel worksheet and .pdf, an Adobe Acrobat file. Sometimes, extensions are generic: .jpg is a common extension applied to a photograph, and, in this case, Windows associates your “default” photo editing program with this type of file.

The point of all this is that sometimes, when a person attaches a file to an e-mail, the extension may get lost or incorrectly assigned. So instead of receiving the file named “My Document.doc,” it arrives as “My Document” (with no extension), “My Document.dat” (with a wrong extension), or “My Document.ibm” (with an incorrectly assigned extension).

When you detach this document (or “download” it in AOL parlance) and attempt to open it, Windows won’t exactly know what to do with it because it’s missing the correct extension. You may have to manually rename it once you learn what type of file it is, or you may have to ask the sender to resend it with the correct extension.

2. You don’t own the program needed to view the file.

This one’s more straightforward. A colleague may send you a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (.xlw or .xls), and be unaware that you don’t own the Microsoft Excel program necessary to view this file. Or perhaps a friend attaches an Adobe .pdf file to an e-mail, but, for some reason, you never downloaded and installed Adobe Acrobat Reader on your computer (the program needed to interpret .pdf files).

In this case, you may have to contact the sender and ask him/her to try sending the file in a format that your computer would be able to understand. Or, you may just have to go out and purchase or download the necessary software on your own.

3. The wrong program is associated with the file extension on your computer.

At one time, you may have tried to open an Adobe .pdf file, but you hadn’t ever installed Adobe Acrobat. Windows would have asked you at the time to choose a program to associate with a .pdf from a list of programs installed on your computer. You may not have known what to choose, and you selected Microsoft Word in error. What you did was unknowingly associate the wrong program with this file type.

That’s like asking the French interpreter at the U.N. to help you translate what the Russian ambassador is trying to say. In this case, you may need a professional’s help to straighten out the babble.

This is Larry Schneider, logging off.


Larry Schneider is the owner of Accent on Computers, a Greenwich-based consulting firm — now in its 16th year of business — catering to individuals, businesses and professional offices. PC and Mac services include computer setup, training, troubleshooting, virus resolution, networking, Internet, database, and programming. Call 203-625-7575, visit Accentoncomputers.com or send email to [email protected]

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