The Email Standards Project launches

It’s no secret to regular readers that I am not a fan of HTML email. For me it gets in the way of the actual message, and, in the all-too-common scenario when an HTML email is not accompanied by a plain-text version, leads to me indiscriminately deleting email without reading it. Most of the HTML email I get is spam anyway, so I doubt I’m missing much.

Regardless of my personal feelings about HTML email, it isn’t going anywhere. And so it would be good to at least enable those who insist on sending HTML email to use web standards by improving support for standards in email clients. It would help everybody if HTML emails could be built with semantic HTML and styled with external CSS. It could actually make me appreciate them.

So despite my dislike of HTML email I think it’s a great step forward that The Email Standards Project has now been launched. Perhaps the most important feature of the site is the acid test for email clients, along with a list of standards support in popular clients. It is not surprising to see Lotus Notes and Outlook 2007 getting a “poor” grade, but perhaps a little more so to note that Gmail is also in need of an upgrade. Badly.

Coinciding with the launch of the Email Standards Project is the publication of Ensuring your html emails look great and get delivered, an article in which David Greiner explains what you need to do if you want your HTML email to work in current email clients. It’s disheartening reading.

Even more importantly though, he talks about what you should do to ensure that the messages you are sending actually make it to their recipients without getting classified as spam. Apparently it is becoming more common for legitimate email to get caught in various spam filters. Having permission so send emails to someone is no guarantee that it will reach them.

Great initiative, and a very informative article. That said, I think I’ll stick to building websites and let others deal with the massive amount of gotchas involved in email marketing.

Posted on December 5, 2007 in Web Standards


  1. Well said as usual. On my own site I argue that while I fully support this project, they have a much harder road to trudge up than the Web Standards project, mainly due to the fact that people will have to physically abandon their mail reader, and sometimes their address (or pay $20 a year for forwarding ability on msn) to adopt an email client that will handle HTML email well. At least until those client makers improve their HTML rendering.

    With the WSP, they encouraged users to change browsers, and that’s relatively easy- most browsers will now import bookmarks and settings from the default browser. But most mail programs (especially online clients) don’t talk too nicely when it comes to importing old mail, and frankly, I’d say most of the time I’d rather have my archives and structure intact than an HTML email.

    And what of the 90% (my best guess) of email users how don’t notice or care if an HTML email is rendered correctly or not? Look around your workplace- tell me how many people that you know would really give a hoot if their email is rendered correctly or not? (don’t answer this if you work in a small design shop) Now tell me how many use a comic sans purple font for their email signature? Exactly.

  2. Doesn’t Outlook/Outlook Express/Windows Mail use the rendering engine of the latest version of IE installed on the system?

    Do all mailclients use their own rendering engine’s for HTML e-mail? So if I install Thunderbird it would use Gecko etc. etc. Anyone care to explain?

  3. great article as always … lets hope the pick up of standards doesn’t take as long as HTML/CSS

  4. @Simon

    Outlook used IE’s rendering engine for HTML version up until the latest version (Outlook 2007) where for some reason it switched to use the Microsoft Word rendering engine.

    Thunderbird does indeed use the same Gecko engine as Firefox.

  5. Doesn’t Outlook/Outlook Express/Windows Mail use the rendering engine of the latest version of IE installed on the system?

    For older versions this used to be true, but Outlook 2007 uses the Word rendering engine (which is very poor).

    So if I install Thunderbird it would use Gecko

    Thunderbird does indeed use the Gecko engine

  6. December 5, 2007 by Henrik Nyström

    The great thing if real webstandards and semantics in html email would get real traction is that you could possible make html emails even nicer and more readable than plain text mails using a user defined style sheet and ignoring all included css (think Thunderbird plugin). Now it would just end up as crazy nested tables.

    Great post as always.

  7. With the WSP, they encouraged users to change browsers

    Not really. For all Firefox’s buzz, Internet Explorer is still the most widely used browser, by a long way.

    The Web Standards Project succeeded by encouraging developers to use the standards, and encouraging browser makers to support them.

  8. This project has been a long time coming. If you’re like me, helping client with their HTML newsletter can be a disaster. Also, on the issue of HTML or no HTML, I think we are biased by the fact that most HTML emails we receive are designed like full web pages. But I think a more subtle use of HTML and CSS in email might change our thinking on that.

  9. Although I don’t like html emails, one of the core things about web standards for me has been optimisation. Were it possible to style emails completely with CSS, we could look forward to much smaller file sizes on our emails, which might at least reduce some of the load these things place on our networks.

  10. I’m with you, Roger. I use plain text email only and I’m fine with that. Most pure HTML emails are blank to me but it’s okay because as you said, they’re usually just spam anyway. In my eyes email is about basic communication, not style.

    That said, as you also pointed out, they’re not going anywhere so steps toward standardization are certainly positive.

  11. I think I’m with you and Mike - I’m not a big fan of HTML email. And I think you hit the nail on the head in your article when you mentioned email marketing because HTML email is a marketing driven enterprise. Nobody else would take the time and effort.

    In perspective its here to stay for good or bad so I don’t see a problem with trying to get it supported evenly across email clients. At least the major ones. But marketers are going to have to still be aware that regardless of what they send people they will never ever be sure of what the recipient is using as an email client. And most people won’t ever care enough to change their email clients just to receive happy HTML emails.

    Plus like you said - the link between HTML emails (from marketers not normal people) and SPAM is undeniable.

    In comments from the WaSP post on this some of what Matt Robin had to say in comments was actually quite valid. Its fair to say that HTML email is here to stay though, and some clients would like it to be there.

    You’ve offered a strong perspective on this subject Roger, thanks.

  12. So despite my dislike of HTML email I think it’s a great step forward that The Email Standards Project has now been launched.

    Well at least you can put aside your personal views regarding the practice and recognise the benefits of what they’re trying to do; something most of the people commenting on that site fail to do. :/

  13. @pauldwaite - yes you are correct- but the movement included the browser initiative that had tons of web builders detecting browsers and suggesting that people upgrade- so we are both correct.

  14. I forgot to add: Some HTML emails are downright funny. They respect and acknowledge the fact that not everyone support HTML email, so they offer a line at the top of the email that says:

    If you can’t view this email click here.

    Of course “click here” is plain text and not a link. This always makes smile for some oddball reason.

  15. Roger, you mention “in the all-too-common scenario when an HTML email is not accompanied by a plain-text version”… How would you go about providing a text alternative?

  16. Thanks for the post and support Roger - your dislike of HTML email even made an appearance in my talk at Future of Web Design, so it means a lot.

    It is true that a lot of HTML email is spam, but a lot of text email is spam too, and in any case we’re not going to stop spam by having poor standards support.

    I think some people forget that the default format for many major email clients is actually HTML, so a lot more ‘normal’ people are using it than you might think.

    In any case, what we are trying to do here is to make sure that designers get involved, so we end up with better designed, more accessible and better coded HTML in our inboxes.

    Thanks again!

  17. HTML email FTW. I like it much more than plane text unless it’s a an email letter.

  18. December 7, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)


    How would you go about providing a text alternative?

    I can’t find a good tutorial right now (and it depends on what you are using to send the email), but try searching for “multipart email” and you should get something useful.

  19. Finally! This has driven me insane for years. This area needs some serious attention. I only hope that the impact of such a project is felt sooner rather than later.

  20. I have never liked HTML emails, so I use plain text emails too. Maybe in the future, who knows.

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