Microsoft Complicates HTML Emails with Outlook 2007

Why? I think that has been the question echoing over and over in my mind. Why? Why? Why was this choice made?

Before I continue ranting about how Microsoft seems to get a thrill out of coming up with one developer-frustrating bit of news each month, I’m going to backtrack a bit and explain what I’m talking about…

In the SitePoint newsletter released on January 10th, there was a rather major article posted. The title of the article was “Microsoft Breaks HTML Email Rendering in Outlook 2007” and can be viewed online in the archive. The article was republished on the main SitePoint site and incited a slew of comments, as expected. After that, we saw the topic covered over at Campaign Monitor, and Pixel Acres.

Why all the fuss? If you haven’t read the article, let me summarize the general issue from the standpoint of a very irritated web designer (one of many in this case).

Once upon a time…

…Web developers/designers were finally relieved to see IE7 in some sort of standards compliant form (even if it isn’t up to specs yet, it’s better than it was – even though they completely ignored the usability experts who were warning in beta that the interface was awful, but that’s another story entirely).

… This has a secondary benefit which made developers happy, because IE is used for rendering/display of emails in MS Outlook. With IE7 running with more standards compliance, that would mean that HTML emails would hopefully offer a bit more functionality based on that IE7 rendering. (Note: To any not familiar with HTML emails, it’s tricky business to make them display well on different email programs.)

… IE7 is released and downloaded by many people across the world.

… Whoops. Somehow we missed this article on the Microsoft site in all the excitement.

… So now we’ve found out that, for some unexplained reason, Microsoft has decided to not use IE7 for rendering in the new Outlook 2007.

… "But wait", you ask hesitantly. "What -will- be used for rendering?"

… Microsoft Word.

… No, I’m not joking.

Truly, I have no idea why this took place. Both the products belong to Microsoft, yet the chose to toss out the recently improved and expected solution to replace it with one of the most junk filled word processors ever created.

To cut to the heart of it, let me explain what is making people so upset. Choosing to use MS Word for rendering instead of IE will result in the loss of several options. This list has been repeated in several places online since developers have noticed this, so I’m just going to quote the list used in the SitePoint article rather than reword it minimally to say the same thing:

* no support for background images (HTML or CSS)
* no support for forms
* no support for Flash, or other plugins
* no support for CSS floats
* no support for replacing bullets with images in unordered lists
* no support for CSS positioning
* no support for animated GIFs

I am, honestly, quite annoyed. I publish an email newsletter each week that goes out to several thousands of readers. It is an HTML newsletter with significant CSS use. Now I’m thinking… okay, so, not only do I have to rework the newsletter, but if people upgrade to Outlook 2007, and try to read their old emails, I imagine now they aren’t going to display properly.

I am not the only one who’s annoyed. Annoyed doesn’t fully encompass it though. I’m also simply dumbfounded.

Now, before any plain-text only advocates jump on the bandwagon and start talking about how they don’t care, let me give you a quote from an anonymous poster on the SitePoint post:

HTML vs. plain-text in email:

1) This typical debate comprises progressive people debating the stagnant. “HTML has no place in email.” I’ve heard my grandfather make similar statements like “computers have no place in a library.”

2) Just because email started in plain-text doesn’t mean it has no room for evolution.

3) Anyone with a subscription list that offers a choice between HTML and plain-text can attest to the fact that HTML is preferred infinitely over plain-text. So anyone who says it has no place in email is an elitist who is ignorant of the preferences of the majority.

This article isn’t about HTML vs. plain-text.

This article is about the fact that Microsoft is catering to their own monopolistic goals and placing devastating hurdles in place for the web-design community. They’re taking 200 steps backward while everyone else takes a few steps forward. And they bank on knowing that they have lassos, enabling them to keep us all at bay.

Can anyone lay out a good reason why Microsoft would have made this decision? If your answer is that “they want people to use plain-text formats because HTML emails are stupid,” you’re in the wrong forum.

Now, there is supposedly a way around this. A comment by Oscar Gensmann (on the SitePoint article) had this to say about the options in Outlook 2007:

Outlook 2007 does have a way to render an e-mail using the built in browser (security-zone).

The method is:

1) Open the E-mail in it’s own window (double click)

2) Click the toolbar button called “Other actions” in the ribbon

3) Choose “View in browser”

This doesn’t help the problem with the preview pane and the fact that the user has to do a considerable amount of work to view the e-mail in it’s correct form. It does however change the situation where it’s totally impossible to view an advanced HTML e-mail in using Outlook 2007 as the primary e-mail client, to a situation where people choosing to use 2007 can be taught how to view advanced HTML e-mails with a simple couple of clicks method.

While that may be possible, how many of your average users are going to know to do that? As most developers/designers know, the average user cannot be expected to know how to alter settings. It should be assumed that many of them will leave their software in it’s default form. Besides, while it is a partial fix, it doesn’t solve the issue of the email preview (which tons of people use).

Obviously the user doesn’t care what is rendering their emails. They won’t know if it’s IE7, MS Word, or ‘that Google thing’. All they need is for it to work the way they expect it. Which is why this is a developer problem.

If developers didn’t scramble to find work-arounds every time Microsoft threw another curveball, it would become as obvious to customers (as it is to many developers) exactly how little they care about inconveniencing people.


3 thoughts

  1. I say death to all Microsoft products. I have refused to use Outlook for years because I have felt it is extremely cumbersome. However, since they have a monopoly and they use it against us continually, I say we simply flood their inboxes with complaints.

  2. I think you are a little bit categorical, Jeremy. Ok, i understand your anger but “death to all Microsoft products” is too much. Think about world wide users, Microsoft is a powerful brand and it has earned that. May be there are some technical difficulties for some of its products, but if you have the curiosity for further search you will find out that everything has an explanation.

  3. Okay, here’s my dilemma:
    HTML formatted emails are being opened in Office 2007 as plain text. They are virtually unreadable at that point. If I’m being stupid, I can live with that, just somebody tell me what I’m doing wrong, or what I can do to make Outlook recognize that the email is formatted in HTML.

    I’m normally a huge proponent of MS, but supporting lots of people complaining at once about emails has me hopping mad.


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