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Microsoft’s Outlook has a commanding share of desktop email clients. However, Microsoft announced that Outlook 2007 would use Word’s HTML rendering engine, rather than Internet Explorer’s which seems like a big step backward.
While some may prefer text-only email, others prefer to — or must — create HTML-based email.
The Email Standards Project is attempting to follow the example of the Web Standards Project, but for email clients, web- and desktop-based to try and make HTML-email creation less hit and miss.
HTML-email is a mess
Anyone who has tried to do html email in the past knows that it is an even more mixed beast than regular web development.
These days, on the web, at least there is a reasonable formula of web standards using CSS-based designs, etc. With HTML email, some clients only support text, others only some HTML, only some CSS, no CSS, while others will edit/strip your content.
Outlook 2007 takes a step backwards?
Around January 2007, there was a bit of a storm when Microsoft announced that it’s Office 2007 Outlook client would use Word’s HTML rendering, not Internet Explorer’s for displaying HTML email.
For many web developers, this seemed immensely backward. Word’s HTML output is notoriously bloated and, quite frankly, rubbish.
However, it seems that the reason was for consistency with Word and for between Outlook users primarily, as users were typically using Word to compose such messages and more likely to send to another Outlook user, given its commanding share amongst email desktop clients.
Outlook’s wide usage cannot not just be ignored, so how to developers deal with this?
What about text only email?
In some of the links presented below it is interesting to read the comments on those posts from many people who have very little sympathy for people struggling with the HTML-based email challenges.
My personal view/preference is in favour of plain text email and having switched recently to Linux/KDE and KMail, which only supports plain text, I find it far better than trying to understand HTML emails with disabled images that don’t have alt text or have broken layouts!
However, many people do desire — or require — that HTML-based emails be created, so for them, this can be a real problem.
(Even when HTML-email is required sending a plain text version with the HTML version is important for those who cannot see HTML email or have it disabled.)
Simple HTML Only?
Some advocate using the simplest layout tables in HTML, which are shunned upon by most standards-aware web developers for all the problems (accessibility, maintenance etc) that it causes.
Simpler HTML, limited to just a few headings, paragraphs, lists, etc may offer improved readability over just plain text. However, this also seems to defeat the purpose of HTML email, especially for marketers and advertisers.
The Email Standards Project
The Email Standards Project, in a similar way to what the Web Standards Project did for web browsers and web developers, is trying to get email clients to follow standards better. They have an email client acid test and a report on web standards support in popular email clients.
It will be interesting to see how this works out… Will they get Outlook to change? Hard to tell, although the following may be encouraging (from one of the web standards most well known advocates, Molly Holzschlag, who now works at Microsoft):
Microsoft was very clear in letting me know that if we want a feature and need it and get an organized list to them, those issues will be addressed and prioritized as the new engine develops in response to developer needs, too.
… I’m now working directly with Microsoft, and I can honestly say that their software developers by and large get it completely. They aren’t our problem, and never really have been.
It’s the business decisions that drive the technology decisions.
— Molly Holzschlag, quoted by, and commenting in The truth behind the Outlook 2007 change and what you can do about it, Campaign Monitor, January 22, 2007
What about actually getting the email delivered?
Ensuring your HTML emails look great and get delivered, by David Greiner is a great resource, discussing issues such as spam lists, what you can request from some ISPs, etc.
- The Email Standards Project
- The Web Standards Project’s post on the Email Standards Project (from which I learned about the Email Standards Project). This post is interesting for the various comments the post attracted.
- E-mail is not a platform for design, Jeffery Zeldman (the guy who started the Web Standards move), June 2007.
- About Microsoft’s Outlook 2007 decision and some further details on what this means:
- Microsoft takes email design back 5 years, Campaign Monitor, January 12, 2007
- The truth behind the Outlook 2007 change and what you can do about it, Campaign Monitor, January 22, 2007
- Microsoft Breaks HTML Email Rendering in Outlook 2007, Sitepoint.com, January 10, 2007
- The Saga of HTML Message Rendering in Outlook, Microsoft Watch, January 31, 2007
- Word 2007 HTML and CSS Rendering Capabilities in Outlook 2007, Microsoft Developer Network, August 2006
- 2007 Office System Tool: Outlook HTML and CSS Validator, Microsoft