An easy way for Italian companies to look silly to Free Software developers (and not only)

Lately I’ve noticed that a few Italian companies (none of which I work for luckily) still reply to email messages with the “R:” prefix.

if you never seen the Italian version of Outlook and Outlook Expres you most likely don’t know this problem. For some reasons I never understood, instead of prefixing the replies with the de-facto standard “Re:” prefix (or case variants thereof), they prefix them with “R:”. In recent Microsoft Outlook versions, as well as in the newer Outlook Express releases, if I remember correctly, there is a checkbox in the configuration file that switches to “international prefixes”, thus replacing “R:” with “RE:” (and “I:” with “FW:” for forwarding).

I expected Wikipedia to have at least an article on this issue, but it isn’t even listed in the major glitches of Outlook Express. Strange.

So what’s the problem with this “alternative” prefix? Well the most obnoxious one is with UseNet. Back when I actually followed the Italian newsgroups, it was obnoxious to see people replying with R: because it caused almost all news clients to split the threads as they thought the subject changed. Agent had a nice feature to specify which reply prefixes to identify, other readers provided a way to turn off threading by subject.

Nowadays a lot of clients support either threading or identify mail threads as “conversations” (no it’s not just a feature of GMail, Apple’s Mail client had that for a while too). These tricks suffer from the same problem. Either they group together mail just by reference (and thus won’t break up the thread when the subject change, making different conversations look like a huge one if the other side is hitting “reply” even when writing of stuff that has nothing to do with any previous message), or the end up splitting a single thread in two-message conversations. Or they support adding multiple reply prefixes. It becomes even more obnoxious when the subject start having as a prefix “RE: R: R: R: R: R: R: R:”, as one client doesn’t know about the “R:” prefix and the other will not “eat up” multiple prefixes.

I do have a “thread” in GMail, that happened with a former colleague of mine, that ends up having nine reply prefixes. And of course GMail won’t group those messages together, making it hard to actually understand what’s going on in the thread.

Now, as long as you’re a single person, you might not care about “R:” prefixes. If you are a small company that works only in Italy, or a medium one who is not working in the IT sector, I can understand, I still think you should be considerate when you use the network, and that your IT managers should just tick that checkbox on, but I can understand.

When you are a medium to average company, whose main sector is IT, whose employers are supposed to know enough technical details to be able to deal with issues that might come up, or might write technical documentation, leaving the “R:” prefix makes you look silly, at least to my eyes (and I’m sure I’m not alone). To me it’s like screaming “We’re subject to Microsoft will, and we don’t give a crap about any other vendor”. When this happens during hiring it’s like a huge banner for me “this is not a company you want to work for”.

As far as I know the “R:” prefix is an Italian prerogative, I don’t think any other Outlook Express version changed that. I suppose it came from the same people who decided that Windows’s Minesweeper was too violent, and had to be replaced with “Prato fiorito” (literally Flowered Garden; it was the exact same code of Minesweeper, just resources changed so that the icon was a flower and instead of mines you had to avoid flowers… I suppose it could work if one has an allergy…).

Sigh, like there wasn’t enough bad stuff already in Italy, even Microsoft wanted to make people laugh at us…