Putting the Outlook 2010 HTML issue in perspective

Over the past 24 hours, the #fixoutlook campaign has taken the Twitterverse by storm and it appears to me that most people’s reactions are one of two extremes – blindingly pledging their support or ignoring it entirely. Either way, I would like to add some perspective on the issue and help bring the two extremes closer. That is, if you believed the world was about to end, I’ll try to convince you why it won’t. On the other hand, if you didn’t care about the issue at all, why it should warrant some of your attention. Or at least I can try.

First off, if you don’t touch Outlook and use Gmail exclusively like myself, then we should be more ashamed of Google than we are upset at Microsoft. As it turns out, Google’s Gmail is a worse offender in email rendering than Microsoft’s Outlook. As far as I can recall, there isn’t a #fixgmail petition, but as you’ll see below, maybe there should be.

emailrender1

Using the “email acid test” produced by the Email Standards Project which in my professional web development opinion is a basic, fair and practical test of HTML rendering capabilities for email clients, Gmail’s test result makes it the second worst contender in a range of popular modern clients. Outlook 2007 in comparison (and Outlook 2010) is certainly a step in the right direction.

Update: User “Allen Huang” posted a comment noting that Gmail must have since updated their web client to render the HTML test more successfully, if not perfectly. The 2007 screenshot from the Email Standards Project is out of date and is no longer applicable. The Email Standards Project has emailed me indicating that their Acid test had been incorrectly sending out test emails with the CSS styles attached inline, which allowed Gmail to pass, however this is the incorrect behavior and has since been fixed. Gmail remains a poor contender in the email Acid test.

emailrender2

Speaking of a step in the right direction, Microsoft as a company is actually no stranger to “email standards” in their products. Their free desktop email clients, Windows Mail and its successor Windows Live Mail, are actually two very capable clients in the email test only to be slightly affected by a bug in the Trident rendering engine. Windows Live Hotmail falls a little short behind on the web client front.

Of course, you might argue Windows and the Windows Live team are separate entities at Microsoft and they have different needs and requirements when designing an email client than the Office team, but that’s where it gets stranger.

emailrender3

What I find weird in particular is that even the Office team itself is no stranger to “email standards”, and I’m not talking about Outlook 2000 either which has been claimed to do a better job than Outlook 2007. Entourage, which is the Outlook equivalent (although some Mac users might argue its equivalence) in Office for Mac has excellent support for HTML email rendering and passes the test with flying colors.

Now on the other side of the spectrum, an argument that’s come up often is that why we need to bother with HTML rendering in email clients at all? One could of course respond by asking a counter-question “why do we need to continuously improve technology”, but I won’t. Whilst HTML emails today might be quite redundant and flashy for no good reason, that shouldn’t be the reason we should hold back either. The web has evolved and is continuously evolving from simple standards, email should evolve with it to make it more compelling and enable more scenarios that similarly you couldn’t imagine the web could do years ago.

Finally, a lot of people seems to be misled by exactly what is being asked of the Outlook team, and their response today seems to indicate they might be too. It is not demanded that Outlook 2010 use a different rendering engine such as Internet Explorer’s Trident.

Using the Word engine to create and display emails is perfectly legitimate since Word allows easy creation of some very compelling graphics to communicate information. In fact, the output of graphics such as SmartArt and charts in Outlook are actually rastered as bitmaps and the output is formatted using no other than the subject under the spotlight, HTML email, making it very much so compatible with the email ecosystem.

All it is asked of Office is to improve its HTML rendering support in Word, which already exists at a below-par level today, to include support for some of the more basic and fundamental HTML elements and CSS styles that would be key to the forward progression of email.

45 insightful thoughts

  1. But the problem is not that the Word HTML engine is crap (but it is crap), or that Outlook 2010 is worse than its competitors, the problem is the progression of Outlook. Ten years ago Outlook 2000 displayed HTML emails more accurately than now, that is the problem. If the “excuse” is to add WordArt in emails… I still prefer to see XXI-century HTML emails.

  2. Saad: I have a feeling that in the near future (maybe IE9 or IE10) Microsoft will adopt the Webkit engine for its browser. Maybe it’s just a dream but… it’s the dream of every web developer :P

  3. Well said.

    Which HTML engine Outlook uses is an implementation detail. The problem is that the engine it uses doesn’t support some basic features. Using IE/MSHTML as the engine is one solution but not the only one; improving Word’s engine is another solution.

    I do wonder, though, what the downside would be from switching to IE to *view* all HTML emails. Presumably the output of the Word HTML generator/converter is supposed to look correct in more rendering engines than just Word’s one so it shouldn’t matter if IE displays those mails, if switching to IE is easier than improving Word.

    And yeah, GMail’s HTML support isn’t brilliant either, from what I’ve seen.

  4. Brilliant post, Long. You’ve dispassionately and accurately described the issue–a true rarity on the web today. Keep it up!

  5. Hate to be the luddite in the group, but “HTML Email” is crap, regardless of the rendering engine. Bring me flat text that I can read on any device or program without “clogging the tubes” with meaningless garbage. If I want to see the pretty stuff, I’ll visit the website…

  6. A) I want to know how many people complaining about Office 2010’s HTML rendering have even had early access to it to know how good or bad it is compared to 2007 or earlier.

    B) @Horseradish, while I do agree from a communication standpoint, there are lots of not-so-meaningless reasons to use HTML as well. I do embedded images in email as a way of doing documentation with screenshots for employees I work with. Granted, we all use Outlook so the issue is mostly a moot point.

    C) @Long, I completely agree, and this is the most rational and insightful post on the matter that I’ve seen. As long as the engine used is continually improved, I will be a happy camper content with pointing out how bad Gmail is as an alternative.

  7. Well, I agree with the Office team that for the end user having to work with the same engine as they would work in other office products is better then having to switch between engines.

    And is such working html engine really needed? I mean, how much html mail already gets blocked because it’s more html then content? And web developers who create those mails don’t mail from outlook, they mail from their own hosting/server.

    However, having that said I agree with some comments here that indeed the progress between Office 2000 and 2010 hasn’t been made or even went worse. The issue with Microsoft is that they don’t believe or want to believe in open standards, and that they need to learn from that mistake over and over again.

    Sure people should work with the same engine when moving from Word to Outlook, but shouldn’t that engine have been improved that much to be compatible with webstandards? I mean, their tons of ways to comment or add specific tags to a site that makes it more word-like when it’s really neccisary (think about those grapics).

    The world is already bad enough with Internet Explorer 6/7/7c/8 and you don’t have to start about the outlook engine. Why can’t Microsoft just listen and fix their things. I mean, html is ages old, just like CSS. And such big company thats able to create an amazing OS like Windows 7 can’t work with simple codes that everyone knows how to write in.

    I hope this twitterthing can make something lose, sure for the end user things aren’t that extremely bad yet, but it limits us developers and thats wrong.

  8. While I think Microsoft’s response to this seems a little immature, if you read their reply carefully they never say that they are not going to improve Words web rendering (despite the headlines covering it). Keep up the heat and we may see a better outlook when office 2010 is released.

  9. “amazing OS like Windows 7″

    that some sort of a joke? you’re taking the piss, no one could be that stupid. Microsoft have a general standard of doing a shit job.

  10. Typical Microsoft apologist bullshit. Long, you’re engaging in playground politics. “Oh, but Google’s way worse than Microsoft, so punish Google too!”

    Look Long – I don’t care what Google’s doing, it’s Microsoft who break standards at every opportunity. It’s Microsoft who – as previous commenters have pointed out – is going *backwards* in standards support.

    Microsoft are the ones who corrupted the ISO process with their abysmal OOXML format (which even Microsoft can’t implement!). Microsoft has pissed off a couple of *generations* of web developers with their crap support for open web standards in IE (clearly in an attempt to divide the web and use their market share to make people who adhered to web standards look “fringe”). Even IE8 is total disappointment, because Microsoft have missed the opportunity to support the SVG standard, no doubt in hope of pushing their useless proprietary, platform specific Silverlight rubbish.

    Now, finally, thanks to the EU (the US’s anti-competitive people were so spineless it makes me, as an American, sick) Microsoft’s finally realising there’re consequences to their anti-social behaviour. I don’t care about Google – they’ll get their just desserts, too, if they shirk standards, but Microsoft has much more work to do to generate *any* good will among anyone who knows anything about IT or the Web (and whose paycheque doesn’t depend on repeatedly fixing MS’s broken software for their poor customers).

    Using MS Word for rendering emails is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard – in fact, I’d only ever believe that an organisation as arrogant and unconcerned with their customers (who want compatibility!) as Microsoft would think to do it.

    Dave

  11. With regard to my SVG comment above, I should point out that *every other browser* on the market supports SVG natively, unlike IE8. So when Microsoft claims they can’t support SVG, is it due to incompetence or is it because they just don’t want to, as it won’t reinforce their monopoly?

  12. @Dave Lane: It does not appear you’ve read past the first paragraph of this article. If you read this blog you’d know very well I’m not apologetic towards Microsoft, instead, I don’t believe we should have double standards either.

  13. move along, nothing to see here. ( being a web developer, having created a bunch of newsletter templates I feel pretty comfortable in saying this data synthetic )

  14. Apologies, Long, but I did read the whole document. I find it absurd that you suggest that MS Word is a good platform for rendering (I’m not saying anything about authoring, although it wouldn’t be my pick for that, either) HTML in any way, shape, or form. I can’t see why MS shouldn’t simply use an HTML rendering engine, given that they’ve got one (albeit, not state of the art) in Trident. This issue concerns open standards, and MS don’t like them.

  15. People seem to have a lot of misinformation on this. The problem is that when sending out an email campaign, email marketers have to limit the design to the lowest common denominator….Outlook 2007 (and apparently Gmail).

    Some people’s response (including the MS team, to a degree), seems to be: “who cares, just a bunch of spammers anyways”. This looking at it from a shallow perspective:

    1. MS customers bought Outlook, and generally, signed up to receive these newsletters and promotional emails. So MS is basically screwing it’s customers by limiting the quality of the communications they can receive. And, they are screwing EVERYONE ELSE, because all emails must be made compatible with the lowest common denominator.

    2. Since pretty much everyone receives HTML email, and I would bet very few use Word Art, it’s a pretty bad tradeoff…even assuming you had to make a tradeoff.

    3. When web developers are anxiously clamoring to render their HTML in TRIDENT, you know there’s a serious problem.

  16. When was the last time I needed HTML in e-mail message, NEVER! Outlook is mostly used in companies, companies don’t use stupid HTML-sites as form of communication (most are filtered and spam anyway). Even if you get one there is small button in Outlook that allows you to open it in BROWSER, you know the thing that is supposed to take care of HTML sites. All this crying seems to come from bloggers(self employed people without any perspective on corporate life) which aren’t main users of Outlook anyway.

  17. @OfficeWorker: I understand that HTML emails today are very much unnecessary and flashy, but that doesn’t mean it has to be. In fact, I’d say most emails today sent are HTML emails, except they don’t utilize any advanced elements/styling so appear as text emails.

    Scrolling marquees are part of the HTML standards too, but doesn’t mean all websites need to use them. The awesome websites we all use and love today have evolved from simple standards that were set before a decade ago. Email today is largely text, but it doesn’t have to be.

    For example, if you were to put a diagram/flowchart in an email today, it’d most likely be a bitmap image or PDF. Could you imagine if instead of just seeing a picture, you could edit it, move things around, and then send it back? That could be realized if HTML were more consistent across email clients.

  18. Either support HTML in mail, and support it *fully*, according to *standards*.
    OR, don’t support HTML in mail *at all*.
    So 100% support or nothing at all. Nothing in between, because the situation as it is now, is just a mess.
    This goes for everyone, no matter if your name is Microsoft, Google or whatever.

  19. @Long Zheng

    Maybe you can include some sreen shots of the email acid test displayed on a Blackberry, IPhone, Windows Mobile phone, … ?

    BTW – Of all samples given, I prefer Gmails rendering. It’s clean and nice and easiest to read. It would acutally like if Microsoft could copy this with Outlook/Hotmail/Live Mail.

  20. I have a problem with Word not Outlook. I know Word is not supposed to be used for editing HTML, but for quick edits to pages on my HDD, Word’s (Office’s horrible HTML engine) completely messes up the page if edited. Why have web editing capabilities if they’re stuck in the 90s?

  21. The whole point of the campaign is that outlook is so deeply rooted into corporate culture, that it’s not going anywhere. Microsoft has done a very good job of getting exchange installed in businesses, and sharepoint is headed the same way. This corporate culture are the customers asking for the HTML newsletters to be created for them (to send to their own clients respectively).

    Now, when a designer creates that newsletter for their corporate customers – and it doesn’t work or get the desired look – they take alot of heat from the corporate customer, all because Microsoft didn’t want to render the email properly. That heat could be anything from lots of yelling, to non payment for service. The designers are basically venting their frustrations in a very creative way, and I agree with them wholeheartedly because I’ve been in that hot seat. It’s not very pleasant.

    That is the reason for this whole hoo-ha, and anyone saying “I dont want HTML email” doesn’t get the problem.

  22. I remember when this blew up a few years ago when it was announced that Outlook was going to use Word as it’s rendering engine. Seems like much the same debate then as now, check the comments on this page on MSDN for example that describes the change and it’s impact:

    http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/aa338201.aspx

    I think after all the pain of moving away from Trident it’s pretty unlikely they’ll go back especially as the business users who actually pay for Outlook probably have a lot less interested in well crafted html emails than they do that there document they wrote in word looks identical when sent inline in an email (not to mention it’s likely the trustworthy computing initiative was likely a driving force of moving away from IE)..

  23. I’m confused.

    I send out professional emails every day to between 300,000 and 500,000 subscribers.
    Gmail gives me the least trouble by far. If it ever has problems there are things I can do to fix it.

    Outlook on the other hand has no alternatives. You can’t fix bits of code as Outlook will just ignore alot of code.
    I don’t think any protests will ever get Microsoft to really change anything with Outlook. They don’t care.
    Time will take care of these issues. More and more college age students are using gmail and firefox as oppossed to outlook and internet explorer. Does anyone use AOL anymore?

  24. @Long Zheng:
    I just did the ACID Test, and in my GMAIL, the message looked IDENTICAL to the reference rendering!
    You can’t just post the screenshot provided from ESP… (they last updated their GMAIL result in 28NOV2007!)

    HELLO! it’s 2009!
    look at my screenshot of GMAIL’s Rendering.. it looks 100% perfect!
    CLICK

    PS. PLEASE update this article!

    @”confused”: You’re right, GMAIL HAS improved a LOT over the past few years… It’s definitely the leading webmail client (in both features AND Rendering!)

    Personally I do not like using a Local Email Client – Web based Emails are much more accessible and faster (in my opinion) – it also doesnt take up unnecessary disk space.

  25. What’s really troublesome is that they A. didn’t actually get the message, and B. in the face of 300 comments decided to close comments.

    What kind of message does that send? I interpret it like this

    Microsoft: Ah, we don’t really understand the ahmm, the question, but we do have some marketing materials here that we can talk about.
    Developers: NO, this is the issue, and 300 people concur.
    Microsoft: Ahm, yes, this does not resemble our marketing material, thanks for the comments, now go away.

    And then…. silence.

    No, not good at all.

  26. Looking at one set of statistcs (I realize it is very easy to make up numbers when trying to determine marketshare of Internet related clients) shows that Outlook 2000, 2003, 2007 and Outlook Express make up almost 40% of the email clients in use (as of June 2009). Yahoo, HoTMaiL and Gmail make up about 37%. There are problems with interpretation of email across most of these platforms. To sit there as developers and say the email clients being used by upwards of 80% of your clients are wrong is just silly. You have to deal with it and move on with life.

    For those who think we should be using plain text, you also need to get with reality. As a corporate email administrator, I do not want to force my users to use Word to create “nice looking” messages and then put them as an attachment to a plain text email.

    Microsoft has made significant improvements in support of standards. Just take a look at Exchange 2010 and its browser support–it now works on Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer. Of course, Microsoft has a long ways to go and we, as their customers, should continue to push them to improve support.

    For those who must have pure HTML email content, simply go to Other Actions and select View in Browser. I agree, poor solution, but if you must.

    This was an excellent summary of the issue. I appreciate it.

  27. dont know about you but i use outlook better say all my clients test their campaign in outlook and whatever does not work i use this fix. htttp://www.htmlforemail.com, they take your jpg and do it its workswith outlook all the time

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