New email software can help you bite your tongue

The latest version of Eudora wants to help you avoid calling your boss a moron in that next hastily written email.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
Qualcomm wants to help you avoid calling your boss a moron in that next hastily written email.

The company's Eudora email software now has a flame-proofing feature called Moodwatch that alerts you when it thinks email you're about to send is inflammatory. The warnings display one, two or three chili peppers depending on the spiciness of your words.

The feature is based on a dictionary of worrisome words that Carnegie Mellon English professor David Kaufer culled for Qualcomm from hundreds of flame mails--the angry, abusive or aggressive messages so infamous in Internet interchanges. Qualcomm then helped Kaufer refine and expand the Moodwatch dictionary, which now includes 2.7 million hostile words and phrases, company spokesman Jeremy James said today.

Qualcomm and Kaufer acknowledge that the feature isn't foolproof, but the English language is complex. Sending the message "You are a moron and complete idiot" will rank three chilies. But "You are a tiresome buffoon" doesn't raise Moodwatch's hackles one bit, James said.

Moodwatch also ranks incoming email, allowing readers to brace themselves for piquant prose. Moodwatch is optional and doesn't discard or filter email.

The feature comes with Eudora 5.0, released Monday. The new version of Eudora also comes with a basic file-sharing feature that allows people to automatically share designated files over the Internet, with Eudora automatically distributing the file to all the members of a group each time it's updated.

Eudora, which runs on Windows, Mac OS and Palm OS, has about 10 percent of the email market, James said. Competition with Microsoft's Outlook and Outlook Express led Qualcomm to bring all the features of its high-end version to the free and basic one, which now is different only in that it displays advertisements. The ad-free version costs $49.95.

Companies like Qualcomm and Microsoft have been racing to make their products more competitive. Qualcomm last month added a new feature to enable live spoken conversation over the Internet.

Qualcomm is investigating writing a Linux version of Eudora, James said. "We want to do one. We have a lot of users asking for it. It's mainly a resource issue right now," he said.

Currently, Moodwatch works only with Qualcomm's dictionary of predefined words and phrases, James said, though the company hopes a future version will allow Eudora users to flag their own words.

It's difficult to add that feature because it would slow down performance, James said. The current Moodwatch dictionary is highly compressed and adds "an essentially unnoticeable" performance drag to downloading email, he said.

Qualcomm decided against making the dictionary easily read, James said. "We don't want kids learning things from the Moodwatch dictionaries," he explained.

But Moodwatch's reasoning can cause problems, Kaufman said. For example, spell-checking programs these days typically underline suspected misspellings, and it's very easy for readers to decide quickly whether the word is misspelled or just unusual enough that the computer doesn't recognize it.

Moodwatch doesn't flag which words or phrases it's worried about, though, so in some cases people might have a hard time trying to figure out which words spurred the chilies, Kaufman said. Consequently, Moodwatch had to be tuned to cut down on the number of "false positives"--flagged email that was in fact inoffensive.

"If we err in one direction, it would be not to flag things," he said. For example, one tester of the feature was annoyed when sending email to a person whose name was Mick. Moodwatch flagged the mail because "Mick" is a derogatory name for an Irish person. Such borderline words were removed from the Moodwatch dictionary.

Moodwatch also isn't aware of other subtleties the human brain can handle, such as locker-room jocularity or biting words later toned down with a smiley face.

But the human brain isn't always so good at that either. It's easy to misinterpret the mood behind email messages that lack the inflection of speech. Kaufman, for one, still remembers the advice he received when he took a job as an administrator: "Never handle serious issues on email."