As I type this post I still can't believe it. I'm literally stunned. If you haven't already heard, I'm talking about the recent news that Outlook 2007, released next month, will stop using Internet Explorer to render HTML emails and instead use the crippled Microsoft Word rendering engine.
First things first, you need to realize that Outlook enjoys a 75-80% share of the corporate email market, which is similar to Internet Explorer's share of the browser market - they make the rules. We've been doing some early testing, as have a few other brave souls, and come February, here's just a taste of what won't be supported:
position- Completely breaking any CSS based layouts right from the word go. Tables only.
Microsoft have released a full run down of what is and isn't supported, including a downloadable validator that helps you validate your HTML for their engine. Word of warning though, it only works with Microsoft software and Dreamweaver.
To give you a quick example of just how far backwards we've gone, here's a screenshot of the Campaign Monitor newsletter (which uses CSS for layout) in Outlook 2000 and 2007. Yes folks, that's seven long years difference.
This really is a game changer. Previously you could send a HTML email in the comfort that the majority of your recipients would have very good CSS support. Other email clients were also catching up. Thunderbird uses the Firefox rendering engine, the new Yahoo! Mail beta has great CSS support. Things were looking good for us CSS based email designers.
Unfortunately, that all goes down the toilet now. If your email breaks in Notes or Eudora, it was often an acceptable casualty, but if it breaks in Outlook, you're more than likely ostracizing too many recipients to justify your design approach. This certainly doesn't spell the end for HTML email, it just takes us back 5 years where tables and nasty inline CSS was the norm.
Imagine for a second that the new version of IE7 killed off the majority of CSS support and only allowed table based layouts. The web design world would be up in arms! Well, that's exactly what the new version of Outlook does to email designers.
After picking up the contents of my desk off the floor and taking a few deep breaths, I tried to come up with a few decent reasons why Microsoft would go in this direction. Here's what I came up with.
positionimpacts the security of an email in any way.
Well, no. We've been doing plenty of testing with the new version of Hotmail (Windows Live Mail) for an upcoming article and it turns out that like Outlook 2007, Live Mail is actually a step backwards for us email designers. At least Hotmail ignored all CSS (except for inline CSS) and you could force it to roll back to a nicely formatted rich text email.
Instead, Windows Live Mail displays some CSS but, you guessed it, limited support for floats and no positioning. It's looking like table based layouts all round at Microsoft for the next few years at least.
We've been spending the better part of the last 2 years encouraging designers to embrace accessible and standards compliant email design, but frustratingly that position may no longer hold much weight. Just yesterday, Jonathan Nicol said:
None of these limitations is going to make the task of designing HTML emails impossible, but they will ensure that no advances are made in this field for a good number of years. Remember, it's been four years since the last version of Outlook was released, so I‚'m going to guess it'll be at least six years before Outlook 2007 drops off the edge of the map.
Sadly, I couldn't agree more. While this is certainly a big blow, the reality is that many of us are going to have to scale back our email templates to years past and stick with tables and inline CSS if we want consistent looking emails in Outlook and Windows Live Mail. For a quick example, our sample email templates use a table based layout combined with some simple CSS.
Template changes aside, I don't see why we have to take it lying down. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this news. Perhaps if we get together as a community and explain to Microsoft how damaging this change really is, we can encourage some real change, or at the very least get the discussion started.
What say you, email designers?
Update 1: Welcome Digg users. With the anti-HTML email comments rolling in, I just want to clarify one thing here. This has nothing to do with the text/HTML email debate and won't stop people sending HTML email. All it means is that a lot of HTML emails in Outlook will be garbled and difficult to read. Nothing more, nothing less. Thanks also to those posting constructive comments. It seems this situation might have plenty to do with Microsoft having to separate the browser from the OS for anti-trust reasons.
Update 2: We've just posted a follow up article that explains Microsoft's reasoning behind this change and exactly what we can do about it if we want it changed.
Update 3: The time for complaining about this change or debating HTML vs plain text has passed. Read why we need to look forward and start doing our own part to improve standards support in HTML email.
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