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Microsoft Takes Email Design Back 5 Years

DAVID GREINER - JAN 12, 2007

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.

Outlook 2000

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.

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