Microsoft takes email design back 5 years

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.

Now c'mon, how bad can this be?

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:

  1. No background images - Background images in divs and table cells are gone, meaning Mark's image replacement technique is out the window.
  2. Poor background color support - Give a div or table cell a background color, add some text to it and the background color displays fine. Nest another table or div inside though and the background color vanishes.
  3. No support for float or position - Completely breaking any CSS based layouts right from the word go. Tables only.
  4. Shocking box model support - Very poor support for padding and margin, and you thought IE5 was bad!

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.

The Campaign Monitor newsletter in Outlook 2000

Outlook 2000

The Campaign Monitor newsletter in Outlook 2007

Outlook 2007

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.

What's the reasoning behind this?

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.

  1. Security - But wait! Microsoft have touted Internet Explorer as "a major step forward in security". Surely they'd just replace the IE6 rendering engine with IE7 and be done with it. I'd also love to know how float and position impacts the security of an email in any way.
  2. Consistent rendering - By default Outlook uses the Word engine to create HTML emails, which it's done for years now. Perhaps Microsoft figured that in order to keep the look and feel of emails consistent between Outlook users they'd display emails using the same engine that created them. But what about the millions of other email newsletters out there that aren't created with Outlook or Word? If an email is created with Outlook, then surely it should display perfectly in a modern browser like IE7.
  3. They hate us - OK, this one might be pushing it, but I'm running out of explanations here. Don't get me wrong, we're not Microsoft bashers here. Both our products are developed on Microsoft's .NET platform and we've been a fan of their development environment for the better part of a decade. But seriously, they've taken 5 important years off the email design community in one fell swoop.

At least they've still got Hotmail, right?

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.

Where to from here?

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.

Posted by David Greiner

15 Comments

  • Marticus
    17th May

    Wow all you people complaining about HTML e-mails or touting the “change your software because outlook is crap” line F***ing crack me up!
    Lets step out of our little bubbles and take a look at the bigger picture shall we?
    First off outlook maby crap but it is the standard All the developers/Designers could upgrade all there software to ThunderBird or equivelent But the e-mails will still look terrible when the customer mr Joe bloggs views the mail in outlook. so no unless your going to make every microsoft user on this planet change their e-mail software do everyone a favour and save your breath!
    Secondly to those whom are complaining about HTML e-mails ..Tough crap unfortunately for you there are people in this world that require and/or even like HTML e-mails that isn’t going to change just because YOU don’t like it. GROW UP!
    all in all whatever your opinion on HTML E-mails or spam our other e-mail software etc. etc. *BLAH BLAH* there is one undeniable fact here… microsoft dropped the ball BIG TIME! and it is causing a LOT of people a LOT of problems..
    WELL DONE microsoft (sarcastic hand clap)

  • Shashank
    23rd May

    What made me mad was the fact that M$ Outlook forces you to use Word to compose *all* email.  In Outlook 2003, there was at least an option to not use any fancy rendering for email composition, but now there simply is none.

    I always compose email in plain text.  In fact, I even strip all incoming email of formatting, and format it only if its unreadable.  Not with Outlook 2007, I can’t.  FAIL.

    They actually pay their engineers to produce this piece of crap software?

  • electricBiscuit
    4th June

    It’s funny.  Everybody wanted MS to stop embedding IE with their operating system.  Now that they have, everybody is saying how stupid MS is and how much they hate them, bla bla blaaaa.  There have even been some lame comments by children that say they can’t wait for MS to go bankrupt…  LOL, yeah, ok….  Oh bad MS for copying everybody and making a monopoly.  Gee…  I didn’t know that Thunderbird and Firefox were the first ever web browser and email software?  Didn’t the developers of them copy what was already done?  Explain why it is that if MS copies something, it’s bad.  If someone else copies something, they are revolutionists?

    Ever had to spend thousands and thousands of dollars per year to keep your corporate emails running smoothly because of the tons of crap HTML emails that are nothing more than junk mail?  Or having your infrastructure at risk because someone got an HTML email embedded with malicious code?

    Bottom line, it’s their software.  They can build it however they see fit. 

    It’s amazing at how many people will bash MS on every move they make, say how much they dislike their software and how much they want everybody to boycott them, but yet they have a PC at home running some version of the Windows OS that they pirated from somewhere along with Office.

    Oh that’s right, all the cool kids are running Linux or Mac and hasn’t touched a MS product in years…  ;)  Nobody here has an xbox 360 either or a smartphone running windows…

    Hey, I know.  I didn’t like this news post so next time I want you to write it MY way.  I wan’t you to approve your postings with me.  After all, they may be your thoughts and views but I should get to say what the final product should be just like how everybody can tell MS how they should write their final product….

  • CATNET1
    4th June

    I had to unload my MS Office 2007 because it was so terribly slow.  How could a company with that much behind it make such a crummy product?  My Office 2003 is much faster and easier to work with.

  • Berg
    19th June

    Just another example of how Microsoft disregards standards and makes things more difficult for designers/developers.  I understand that they can do what they want and people will have to change.  Doesn’t make it right.  A huge step in the wrong direction.

  • Member Speed
    21st June

    I agree that MS should fix the whole html / css issue with Outlook. That being said, I do prefer text emails. I get tired of seeing formatting issues with html, regardless of the client. I am still using Office 2003, and by Office 2015 maybe I will consider upgrading :-)

  • cool
    29th June

    My first guess is that this is actually a result of the Microsoft Anti-Trust settlement.

  • Sarah
    8th July

    I code emails and newsletters for various companies and I have completely had to rethink the process and templates that we use for these. As stated in the article, it’s not impossible, but it definitely isn’t making life easier as we spend at least 6 hours testing and editing and retesting just for Outlook 2007 bugs whenever we get a new template request. I just feel bad that our company had to limit what we could offer for the same billable time as a year ago.

  • Guy Fawkes
    16th July

    I agree - why allow HTML in email? It’s incredibly stupid. HTML email was the very first method used by VXers to send virus-laden emails, and it’s still the easiest.

    Oddly, Microsoft was not the first offender; Netscape was. But Microsoft took HTML email vulnerabilities to new - and so far unsurpassed - heights.

    Switching their rendering engine to Word is a good first step. Removing the ability to create email in HTML would be even better, but that’s trying to put the genie back into the bottle, and it will never happen.

  • FreeFrag
    11th September

    So Guy Fawkes, are you then going to suggest we roll back the Internet to the days of black and white paragraphs and headers? Are you then going to suggest after that that we just abandon desktop environments and roll back to console-only information terminals?

    This is another stupid, stupid move on the part of Microsoft.

  • tadalis sx
    13th September

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  • Village Reporter
    18th September

    The best thing is to ignore Microsoft standards. Don’t use HMTL in email. Pressure your employers to dump Outlook.

    Also, an honest question from an American. Why does the Queen’s English refer to a corporation as plural, as in using “Microsoft have” in your text. In the US, a corporation is singular. It’s a legal equivalent of a person. We say “Microsoft has” when referring to a corporation. Some in the US have started writing this the Queen’s way, but it’s poor style in American English, showing the writer does not understand how we define corporations. Anyway, can someone explain this to me. Just go to my website and click on the Contact Village Hiker link at the bottom of the page. Thanks.

  • Rob F
    23rd October

    Almost 2 years later and we’re still getting the “Email should have html” comments?

    How useless is that…?
    I’m a print/web designer who does a lot of emails. I don’t have the luxury of being IT and tying technical knots around job requests and delaying/never doing them. I get told to do an html email, and I’ve gotta do it. I’m continually astounded by how IT departments at various companies I’ve worked at can just not do things. Any department that actually makes money is going to be told “Just do it”.

    I challenge anyone in the philosophical camp of “no html emails = good” to write a proposal that we can all give our CEOs that will effectively explain to a non-technical mind why they should cancel email marketing campaigns, then on to why they should stop making money by offering html email design as a paid service to customers. I would really love to post it on our wiki.

    International business with NEVER stop doing html emails. The genie will NEVER fit back in the bottle. There will just be a new genie, some day.

    To that end… making the best of the situation and campaigning to Microsoft are the only courses of action left to us designers/production staff who actually DO the work. That’s why I keep coming back here and to other forums.

  • Faust
    5th December

    Microsoft didn’t give us advantages from this, Are they want monopoly all the developer and user? IMO I’ve quite fed up by Microsoft rules and etc. I’ll change to other Operating System.

    Microsoft is good OS couple of year ago, but not now. They should change their policy to User based not Market based.

  • Alex
    11th December

    Heard about not bad tool which works with mails and more than-outlook viewer,as far as i know it is free,utility can help, when your mailbox is not accessible, it can happen, when something is wrong with your corporate mail server,is able ensure full compatibility with this platform, it represents one of the most popular programs for mail processing,restore all messages, contacts, tasks and calendars cannot be stored on client PC due to security reasons,pst viewer Microsoft and Outlook email viewer features a powerful algorithm, that decrypts *.ost format and extracts your data as a set of files in *.eml, *.txt and *.vcf formats,also convert your data to a *.pst file, that can be easily opened by any email client, you can even forward this file, recovered with Microsoft Outlook .pst viewer to any other PC within your local network.

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