By David Greiner on 24th June 2009
As most of you know, our motivation for starting the Email Standards Project two years ago came from the release of Outlook 2007. Specifically, because of Microsoft's decision to avoid using a browser to render HTML emails in place of a word processor. This immediately took standards-based email design off the table, forcing designers to abandon web standards for tables and font tags. You can read our original reaction and the subsequent call to arms that followed.
Since that time, we've had the pleasure of working with teams at Yahoo!, Apple, IBM, Google and even the Microsoft Entourage team. However, the elephant in the room was always Outlook. For a time things were looking good and we had the chance to chat with a number of passionate Microsoft employees who agreed with our position on standards and to try their best to improve future versions of Outlook. I'm sad to say, it looks like these efforts failed.
After testing the latest beta of Outlook 2010 and seeing the same poor standards support as 2007, a senior member of the Outlook team confirmed they plan on continuing to use Word to render HTML emails. Not only that, but early tests indicate that HTML support in the Word engine has not been improved in any way. Same bugs. Same quirks.
To demonstrate just how bad the Word rendering engine is in Outlook 2010, here's exactly the same email rendered in Outlook 2000, and then Outlook 2010. Click the image for a full sized version.
When Outlook 2007 was released there were lots of theories thrown around about what motivated the switch to the Word rendering engine. Many stipulated that it was a security related decision after the problems they'd been having with previous versions of Outlook. As it turns out, it was much simpler than that.
This was confirmed last week in a discussion with Outlook Product Manager Dev Balasubramanian. When asked why Outlook is using Word to compose HTML emails, this was his response:
"The reason for this lies in the benefit Outlook users gain by having Word as their e-mail authoring tool; rich tools like SmartArt, automatic styles and templates, and other benefits found in Word 2007 and 2010 enable Outlook users to write professional looking and visually stunning messages."
"I am aware of where this decision on our part places Outlook from a standards perspective - at the same time, we ask that you consider the benefits Outlook users get from having Word tools in their e-mail authoring experience."
When asked why Word is also used to render HTML emails, Dev explained:
"Having multiple HTML engines could reduce performance, as well as create an inconsistency in terms of what type of content the user is able to create vs. consume."
Basically, Microsoft are using the Word rendering engine so emails composed in Outlook will look consistent when viewed by other Outlook users (also confirmed in this Microsoft white paper).
Microsoft's decision to move away from the pre-2007 approach of using Internet Explorer to render emails clearly demonstrates they are not confident that emails composed using Word will render correctly in a web browser. Remember, for a second, that every other email client on the market today uses a web browser to render HTML email.
Surely Microsoft understand that if an Outlook 2010 user sends a Word formatted email to a friend using Apple Mail or Thunderbird and it's unreadable, both sender and receiver suffer a poor experience. By aiming to please Outlook-to-Outlook senders, they are punishing Outlook customers who send to those using other email clients. Given the fact that Outlook 2007 only commands around 7% email client market share, it's easy to see how short-sighted this is.
To us, the solution couldn't be more clear-cut. By updating the Word engine so it can compose and render standards based HTML, all of these problems are solved. Microsoft can have its pie and eat it too.
Outlook customers can receive email from outside sources without formatting problems. They can also rest assured that any emails they send to friends and colleagues not using Outlook will display as intended.
As the market upgrades from Outlook 2007 to 2010, HTML email design can move out of the pre-standards era of the 90's bringing all the benefits that come with it.
Outlook 2010 is still in beta and a year away from public release. Either we make it clear this is a bad decision now, or the disconnect between Outlook users and the rest of the email world will continue to grow. Email designers will be stuck building emails using the same clunky combination of tables for layout, inline CSS and font tags for many years to come.
Thankfully, Microsoft want to hear your feedback about this. From the Outlook Product Manager Dev Balasubramanian:
"The Office team, and Microsoft in general, is always open to and interested in customer feedback so we can prioritize the various needs of our diverse user base in product planning and development."
"This conversation alone has reignited the topic within the Outlook and Word teams and in and of itself will contribute to future design considerations... We want to hear feedback on this position, and I'm sure you and your readers will provide it."
It's time for us to send the strongest message yet to Microsoft, and we need your help to get started. To make this happen, we've built fixoutlook.org.
All you have to do is tweet your thoughts about this issue, and make sure you include the fixoutlook.org URL somewhere in the tweet. We'll be pulling together every tweet that includes this link on the fixoutlook.org site to send a unified message to Microsoft. The more tweets, the more impact, so please start spreading the word today and encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same.
To get started, head to fixoutlook.org for all the details.
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