At its unveiling during a Microsoft press event yesterday, the preview of Outlook 2013 was poised as a new, forward thinking email client. For one, it's adopted the same aesthetic as Mail on Windows 7 phones. It's touchscreen ready. But is it a step in the right direction for email standards?
We didn't waste a moment setting up the customer preview of the new Office on Windows 7, plus the web-based Office 365 service that it's tightly-coupled with. While Outlook 2013 provides the desktop app experience that you know and perhaps even love, Outlook in Office 365 is a webmail client that seems more like Hotmail, than its previous incarnation, Outlook Web App. Here's what email designers can expect from both.
Once you've jumped through the hoops of setting up Outlook, the first thing you'll notice is, well, how monochromatic it is. Gone are the golden gradients, the bevelled buttons, the ribbony ribbon. However, once you get past the limited palette and plain preview-pane, it's pretty much Outlook 2010, just reskinned.
The similarities don't stop there. We ran our CSS tests and found that CSS support is identical to Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2010. This means that it's once more using the Word rendering engine to display HTML email. It goes without saying how disappointing this is, especially given that Outlook/Word's legacy of dodgy CSS support has made them many enemies amongst HTML email designers. More on that in a moment.
One curiosity is that some email newsletters are preceded by a link to the web version of the email, except that it's not the version we host on our domain. Instead, the HTML email document is downloaded and viewed locally in Internet Explorer. We're not entirely sure what triggers this message (as it only appears sometimes), but we'll be sure to look into it further.
Oh, we should mention too that images are turned off by default, just like in Outlook 2007/2010.
If you have your hopes up about Office 365 being leaps and bounds ahead of OWA in terms of CSS support, then we've got mixed news for you. Yes, it certainly is an improvement - the basic CSS2 properties are mostly there (including margin, padding and even position), but then again, there's no background image support and absolutely zero love for CSS3.
This wouldn't be all bad if it wasn't for the appearance of links in HTML emails - some turn an ugly blue color for seemingly no reason, while the lack of support for the text-decoration CSS property makes everything look messier.
Nonetheless, the resemblance to the Mail app on Windows 7 phones is soothing. Like Outlook 2013, Office 365 has been optimized for tablet devices, with no pop-up windows this time around. With Microsoft pushing the Surface tablet, could Office 365 be in line to become the next big mobile email client?
So, the bad news - both Outlook 2013 and it's cloud-y cousin, Office 365 mean that email designers like us will be coding for the lowest common denominator for years to come. This is despite thousands of folks voting with their tweets via Fix Outlook and the Email Standards Project for a better email experience. The response by the Corporate VP of Office back in 2009 was that "improvements and changes in this area are something that the team is definitely considering for the future", however, it seems these improvements and changes haven't extended to creating an HTML email client that doesn't require endless hacks, workarounds and compromises to work with.
If you're a Windows 7 user, we'd love for you to check out both clients and tell us what you think. How do you feel about Microsoft not showing any commitment to improving the state of email standards? Is the lack of change reassuring, given that we don't have to learn any new tricks? Or have Steve Ballmer and co pulled the rug out from beneath designers once more? Let us know in the comments below.
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