Microsoft makes accessible and standards compliant HTML email impossible

I’m sure most people have already heard that Microsoft Breaks HTML Email Rendering in Outlook 2007, and in doing so takes email design back 5 years. If you haven’t read those articles, what’s going on is that Microsoft has decided to use Word to render HTML in Outlook 2007. And comparing the CSS support of Word to that of Internet Explorer (which is what Outlook used to use) is like comparing IE 4 to Firefox 2. In other words, it is really lousy.

HTML email, when created by people who know what they are doing, was heading in the right direction with regards to semantics and Web standards. But Microsoft just made anything but the simplest designs impossible to achieve without resorting to really dirty, old-school tricks. Well, they didn’t really do that, but because of Outlook’s huge market share that is the practical result of their decision.

It’s a fascinating move by Microsoft, and I can’t help asking myself a few questions. Why does Microsoft seemingly hate everybody who works in the Web industry so much? Why does Microsoft keep coming up with new ways of making our jobs harder? Is it because the Web makes it possible to run applications on any operating system? Because many Web designers and developers use Macs? Whatever the reason, it sure isn’t going to make them any new friends among Web professionals.

One thing that strikes me while reading the comments on the two articles I just mentioned is the condescending attitude held by the HTML email apologists, insinuating that anyone who does not have to design HTML email does not have a real job. Grow up, please? The same goes for the anti-HTML email mob. I hate HTML email too, but the sad reality is that many clients cannot be talked out of using it for marketing.

I know for sure that I will not even attempt to create any more HTML emails. Next time a client requests it I will try to convince them to use text-only, and if that fails let somebody who does nothing but design HTML email take care of the dirty work. I’m done.

A couple of tips to anyone that is forced to create and send HTML emails:

  1. Offer a text only alternative when signing up
  2. Use multipart email

Doing so will give people who prefer text based email a reason to stay subscribed. Thanks.

Posted on January 19, 2007 in Quicklinks, Usability, Web Standards

Comments

  1. I have a couple of conspiricy theories which i blogged about when IE7 was in development - http://mtcodex.net/archives/contemplating/ie7operationmscounterstrike.php

    One is to turn web apps into MS windows networked apps kinda thing.

    Another is to dominate the browser market but to castrate the products just enough to stop developing really cool web apps being easy/better.

  2. Although I didn’t expect this move from MS, I can understand their motives. With the pressure from (mainly) Europe to deliver a Windows-version that does not come with Internet Explorer integrated into the OS, they developed the N-series of Windows.

    It’s quite possible that users that buy these versions, will in fact have Firefox, Opera or what have you as their browser, and IE won’t even be there, thus breaking HTML functionality in Outlook entirely. Using the Word engine will at least enable some HTML functionality.

    And who knows, maybe they’ve made some improvements to the Word HTML engine. After all, it’s not the Word 2003 engine Outlook’ll be using. It’s the Word 2007 engine. It’s quite possible there’s been some form of improvement. Or so we can hope :-)

  3. Rick: “It’s the Word 2007 engine. It’s quite possible there’s been some form of improvement.”

    It doesn’t appear so - check out the list of unsupported HTML elements and attributes, and CSS properties: http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/aa338201.aspx

  4. So… what’s new?????

    Quite annoying to have Outlook render stuff with the Word 2007 engine… back to their own standards and markup crap like and .

  5. oopss… it stripped out >mso-this> and >mso-that> … right after ‘markup crap’ =)

  6. Is it at all possible that Word 2007’s CSS rendering engine is a lot more advanced than it’s predecessors’? Maybe that’s why they opted for it instead of IE.

  7. January 19, 2007 by theUg

    Of all things I found ironic, Google ad here was for Microsoft Expression Web with such words on the page:

    Passionate about Standards

    Build dynamic, interactive pages that harness the power of the Web to deliver superior quality. Built-in support for today’s modern Web standards makes it easy to optimize your sites for accessibility and cross-browser compatibility

  8. We need to start a new campaign to SPREAD THUNDERBIRD. HTML email is in desperate need of standards.

  9. Why does Microsoft seemingly hate everybody who works in the Web industry so much?

    Well Microsoft hates them because they are using a platform they cannot control, web pages use open standards instead of the proprietary Windows APIs.

    If all applications are served via the web there’s nothing stopping people from switching to Linux, Mac, FreeBSD, or any other platform: even Plan9 From Bell Labs!

    This point is wonderfully proven by: this video of Microsoft’ Steve Ballmer. Developers, developers, developers!

    Another good article is: How Microsoft Lost the API War.

    So I wouldn’t say it’s paranoid to think Microsoft hates the Web industry.

  10. more irony…
    The last three posts to this site, in sequence:

    1. New W3C HTML Working Group chaired by Microsoft
    2. Bill Gates on Web standards: Huh?
    3. Microsoft makes accessible and standards compliant HTML email impossible
  11. January 20, 2007 by David

    One thing that strikes me about all (?) the articles posted about Microsoft’s deplorable behaviour towards web standards is that Microsoft is referred to as an entity - ‘Microsoft’ is making the decision. That’s not correct - people are.

    Someone in Microsoft is making these decisisons - either an individual or a small group is continuing with their old, favourite ‘divide and conquer’ strategy. Bill? Ballmer?

    Maybe if someone could identify the culprit(s), a ‘name and shame’ campaign would have more effect on stopping this behaviour than just blaming Microsoft, the entity? It’s good to have a dream ;).

  12. Hehe, it’s a response to Apples’ upcoming Mail.app with all that HTML wizardry. Who wouldn’t want to stop it eh?

  13. So there’s lots of silly conspiracy theories about it…but does anyone know the real reason why they did this? I don’t, but I’m guessing that “try to take over the world” wasn’t it.

  14. I couldn’t believe this when I read this myself but MicroSoft is a behemoth and I’m sure this is more an example of Kafkaesque bureacracy than nefarious conspiracy.

    What’s their mission? Hand over their market to Thunderbird?

  15. January 20, 2007 by Anton Muraviev

    I wonder why they simply did not use IE engine to compose HTML letters, if they wanted to improve user experience so badly? Making a decent editor that utilizes designMode in IE (without cross-browser support) is neither impossible nor time-consuming.

  16. Whenever I’ve created HTML emails I’ve always used tables and old school HTML. It is like a trip down memory lane. CSS support is poor across many clients (not just Outlook) so it is the best option in my opinion.

    Even then I recommend sending text only as well and providing a link to a web-based version for the user to follow if they experience rendering problems.

  17. January 20, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Matt:

    The last three posts to this site, in sequence:

    Hehe, yeah this week turned out to be “Microsoft rant week” here.

  18. Email is already horribly broken, in my humble opinion. The activities of spammers have so hideously butchered email that Microsoft’s latest stab in the back of web standards probably won’t make much of a difference. I’d like to see a move away from local email applications toward a web-based approach anyway. Ajax-flavored webmail clients have almost replicated the slick feel of a local application.

  19. January 20, 2007 by Johan

    Just wanna say that Outlook is more than an email reader/composer. Why not skip html at all? I hate html-emails.

  20. January 20, 2007 by Daniel

    One of the users above brought up a good point. I can’t imagine what the new HTML emails created by Mail in Leopard will render like in Outlook 2007.

    Not like Microsoft would have a reason to care though.

  21. In light of this, it’d be great if Molly could once again ask Bill Gates what Microsoft’s commitment to web standards is, and why is stops short of letting us use the same HTML for e-mail and the web.

    Actually, I wonder if it’s a security thing? Does Word render HTML more securely than IE 7?

    If so… well… that doesn’t say a lot for IE 7.

  22. I know for sure that I will not even attempt to create any more HTML emails. Next time a client requests it I will try to convince them to use text-only, and if that fails let somebody who does nothing but design HTML email take care of the dirty work.

    Ugh. I guess I will be doing the same.

  23. As far as I’m concerned, if MS have killed off bloated HTML email messages and forced everyone back to plain text it’s their biggest gift to the web world for some time.

  24. None of my clients have ever yet actually decided to go with HTML emails over text, and that’s a good thing. Hopefully that will continue to be the case (at least MS has provided me with a better argument against it).

    I’ll be pushing them to switch to Thunderbird even more enthusiastically now…

  25. Those of you asking why:

    Emails created in Microsoft Word 2007 will display perfectly in Microsoft Outlook 2007.

    That’s it. They don’t “hate” anyone…in fact, they really don’t give a crap who you are or what your profession is. They’ve got a user-base of people who exclusively use Microsoft products, and don’t care about anything outside that world.

    It strikes me as funny that every time Microsoft makes a move like this, the entire web-development industry (to which I am a member of) claims that it’s a direct personal attack on either themselves or their profession. That’s simply not the case.

  26. I am also done with HTML email for the next 5 years or so. Sad, but that’s the way it’s gonna be.

  27. Thank you Nathan for giving an answer to what we should do.

    Now I must buy Microsoft Word 2007 to write html. I’m sure that will work perfectly in other email clients. And will run smoothly on my Mac. And and and…

  28. Eystein: I never said I had a solution. I don’t think there is such thing as a solution in this case. All I was saying is that the cause - as defined by most of the web developers commenting here - is wrong.

  29. Please answer this for me. Why do you all hate HTML email so much? I can’t believe it, it’s like hating web sites that are designed, and wanting the web to be text only (like back when Al Gore was first inventing the internet LOL).

    But seriously, think about those great HTML emails you get from iTunes. They contain information I opted in to recieve, and information I read. If it was rendered text-only, rather than quickly scanning my eye over it and seeing if there’s a promotion for Depeche Mode that i’m interested in… or a promotion of nsynch, which I will have to delete… I would have to read through everything in order to decide whether i’m interested or not.

    I don’t have time for that. No thanks, give me my HTML emails anyday.

  30. Oh, but the main topic of discussion here is disconcerning. Microsoft, what the hell are you doing. I’m not here to crap on them, I’m a fan of the Windows world. I really am. Granted not nearly as much as I am a fan of the MAC world though, I mean come on, OSX is slick, beautiful, and just a dream to use. But I do like the windows world, so everytime this sort of headline makes the news, I feel embarassed for them. They could potentially have a much nicer offering, but something about them seems to be pigheaded and stubborn… and this is a perfect example. I mean, Bill Gates doesn’t even know what web standards are.

  31. January 22, 2007 by Michael Thompson

    I agree that Microsoft made an odd decision relating to their HTML email rendering. But what seems even more odd is a gathering of web professionals all giving up on HTML email.

    It has its place. Everyone reading this should be able to agree that sometimes visual styles can enhance a few chunks of information by making them more readable, et al. A credit statement that has your balance due bolded or a lengthy web hosting newsletter with headings that make scanning for important information easier.

    But no! Microsoft is making it too hard and everything should be plain-text anyways. You know what? Screw CSS! Let’s just take the entire web back to plain-text.

    So in the spirit of text-only communication, here’s a flame. Like the good ol’ days of the Internet, since that’s what you seem to long for…

    You’re too full of yourself to see any good in a technology beyond your own preferences. Why don’t you go give some rock-star presentation about how you’ve finally managed to fit your head up your arse. Long live plain text!

  32. I’m really astounded at the amount of “e-mail is for text only” this topic has generated on the web. Multipart e-mail goes a long way to comfort everyone. HTML e-mail is extremely useful and needed, in some cases, end of story. As far as a solution is concerned, I fear that it’s indeed ‘back to the basics’ … but damn, not even using padding?!

    MS does a great job at making a fool of themselves every day, unfortunately only to a select group of people. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d discover their own e-mail newsletters were broken in Outlook 2007.

  33. January 22, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Michael: Nice flame :-).

    I can see the use of HTML email done right, and I understand why many want to use it. Unfortunately almost none of it is done right.

    If anything good were to come out of this mess it would be for everybody to lower their ambition when it comes to designing HTML emails. How about settling for what Outlook 2007 allows and just apply some very light styling instead of bringing in the full table artillery? Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad? Maybe it is possible to find some kind of middle ground between delivering a complete website and a plain-text message? I don’t know, and I’ll leave it to others to find out.

  34. January 23, 2007 by Michael Thompson

    Roger — I can agree with you on that. HTML emails should not be used to style a message that looks like someone’s homepage with a “custom” message in it.

    Nor should email be barred from the readability boost a lil’ CSS love can add.

    Perhaps Microsoft is smart on this one. Maybe they’ve realized this and are allowing for slight CSS touches, but blocking the ability to web-ify an email.

    Hmmm…well, it’s a thought. Though not one I necessarily agree with. :-)

  35. Is outlook 07 going to be a free upgrade for Windows users or only bundled with Office 07/Vista?

    I’m hoping it takes a while for it to get adopted by the general public so that i have time to get a job where I never have to code an html email ever again.

  36. January 23, 2007 by Stevie D

    It strikes me as funny that every time Microsoft makes a move like this, the entire web-development industry (to which I am a member of) claims that it’s a direct personal attack on either themselves or their profession. That’s simply not the case.

    It is an attack on our profession. The whole premise behind the internet and email is that it is portable and compatible across different platforms and systems. Microsoft are happily ripping this apart, to ensure that there is as little compatibility as possible between their (majority share) products and others.

    It is symptomatic of Microsoft’s arrogance, and belief that they can bulldoze all agreed standards and protocols out of the way, safe in the knowledge that people will choose the Microsoft option.

  37. A client did a bit to educate me regarding html emails, and it’s a sad fact we all need to remember. He said that clickthroughs and the conversion to sales from html emails was astronomically stupidmadnumbers higher than what they would receive from text only emails to their newsletter subscribers. Do I want to design the dang things? Hell no. But do I want to keep this very nice client who in all other ways gives me fun and well paying projects to do on an ongoing basis? Yes. So what’s the answer here?

    sigh

    Anyone have a cheap copy of Office ‘07 I can buy? ugh

  38. Aww come on… we’ve never been able to create HTML emails using CSS anyway. There are too many email clients that render the CSS incorrectly in the first place.

    What Outlook supported, Hotmail didn’t, what Hotmail supported Gmail strips out… plain old HTML has been the only way to guarantee consistent results anyway…

  39. I just started an online petition to gather the opinions of kindred spirits on this subject. I’m aiming for about 500.000 signatures, to be offered to mister Gates personally. By HTML-rich e-mail, obviously ;-)

    Please join the petition at the link above this post!

  40. February 6, 2007 by Thomas

    I think the real reason for this has to do with corporate users of Outlook.

    Microsoft have been pushing Word as the Outlook editor for some time, which makes perfect sense: supporting two editors is a needless duplication of effort. If Word is being used to compose mails, but then IE is used to render them for reading, they may end up looking different to the writer and the reader, and replying/forwarding will involve a convoluted design where Outlook has to switch between rendering engines. To provide a good user experience, Outlook simply has to be standardised on either IE or Word, with the same engine used for both composing and reading.

    Since both Outlook and Word are part of Office, and Word is far better than IE for composing documents, it’s no surprise the Office developers decided to standardise on Word instead of IE. I’d imagine it’s also a relief to remove any dependencies on IE’s development schedule and feature set.

    Having used Outlook in a corporate environment, I recall a lot of complaints about HTML mail. Most users (including me) preferred to send mail in the Word/Outlook-generated RTF format, and converting it to HTML invariably bloated the size and degraded the formatting. If Microsoft are making it possible for Outlook’s/Word’s HTML mail to compete with the old RTF mail format, I imagine a lot of corporate users will cheer, and most of the relatively smaller group of home users who use Outlook probably won’t even notice that some HTML mail doesn’t look as good as it used to do.

    At the end of the day, Outlook isn’t aimed at home users, and never has been. This means Internet mail is far less important than intranet mail, and for intranet mail, users will almost certainly be using the same client, ie Outlook. What matters, then, is how well Outlook allows its users to read and write mail from/to other Outlook users. It’s really as simple as that.

Comments are disabled for this post (read why), but if you have spotted an error or have additional info that you think should be in this post, feel free to contact me.