It has been an interesting few weeks in the world of web standards for email.
The boys from Campaign Monitor executed a successful awareness campaign in the form of fixoutlook.org which rapidly racked up over 24,000 Tweets and overtook the Iran Election in Twitter’s trending topics. Unfortunately for all of us, it has been a case of message received – but not understood.
The Core Problem
Back in 2007, Microsoft swapped the Outlook rendering engine from Internet Explorer to Word. This in itself is not a problem at all; and actually delivered some really good improvements. There was now one-to-one fidelity between the authoring and viewing experiences because they were one and the same.
I like having Word as my authoring tool. I like features such as SmartArt and the context aware picture tools.
In making this switch though, we inherited the woeful CSS support that Word has. Microsoft’s developer documentation lists Word 2007 as supporting “a subset of the standard HTML 4.01 specification, […] the Internet Explorer 6.0 HTML specification [and] a subset of the standard Cascading Stylesheet Specification, Level 1.” That’s even less support than Internet Explorer 5 had.
Why does this matter?
This isn’t just some web standards movement for the fun of it – there is real business impact here. No, it’s not something that end users will bang their head against. It’s something that affects all of us web designers.
Two of the key areas that are lacking in the rendering engine are support for the float and background-image. The former throws us back to the dark ages of table based layouts and all their inherent accessibility and layout issues. The latter means that there are some designs you just can’t do at all. Try placing today’s date on top of a graphic header in an email and let me know how you go.
In a comment that I consider a bit unfair, Microsoft’s official response referred to Campaign Monitor as makers of “email marketing campaign” software (complete with those quotes). Another thread I stumbled across described the fixoutlook.org campaign as being about the ability to deliver “bloated HTML with pixel trackers, domain redirectors and Google Ads”.
This is not a movement to aid in the delivering of spam. There are legitimate reasons for delivering automated and/or bulk emails to users. Campaign Monitor goes above and beyond the legal requirements to make sure their system is not misused.
This movement is about being better online citizens:
- Bloated HTML? Float-based layouts are much leaner and faster to render than table-based layouts.
- Pixel trackers? We can do that in Word already – no change here.
- Domain redirectors? I don’t even know what they are in this context and Bing doesn’t seem to either.
- Google Ads? We’re not talking about running scripts at all.
Why does it really matter?
Personally, I think one of the most amusing demonstrations of why this really matters comes from one of Microsoft’s own newsletters:
Notice that message on the top? “Read this issue online if you can’t see the images or are using Outlook 2007.” The authors of this newsletter probably deemed that Outlook 2007’s rendering engine required too much extra work for them to support it that the business case just didn’t exist.
We’re going through this same experience at the moment for one of the largest online presences in Australia. Having got our templates working in all of the major email clients except Outlook 2007 and Gmail, it was time to see what we could do about these last two stubborn children. In the end, it took twice the amount of time to make it Outlook 2007 compatible than it did to develop it in the first place. (And no, Gmail is never a pretty story either but that’s not an excuse Microsoft should be using.)
It’s not all about mass marketing either.
Here’s how one of my opt-in Twitter notifications renders side-by-side in Word and IE:
(click for full size)
There have been some comments floating around asking why we’re only just starting to care now. I think this is a valid question, with two answers.
First and foremost, email has always been a right pain and thus the Email Standards Project was born in 2007. This project has gone on to make head way with some of the biggest names in the email game. Unfortunately though, there has been lack lustre response from Microsoft to date (including even to this targeted campaign).
Secondly, while this problem has been present since Outlook 2007, the big concern is that there doesn’t appear to have been any recourse made in Outlook 2010. To be fair, no official builds have been released yet and thus the fixoutlook.org campaign is being driven on evidence gained from a pre-beta build. With all that in mind though, you’d think that Microsoft could have mentioned something in their reply if they were working in this area. They didn’t. Also, now is our last chance to try and make an impact on Outlook 2010 before it gets locked down into the full testing regime.
Standard? What standard?
Microsoft’s official response correctly identifies that “there is no widely-recognized consensus in the industry about what subset of HTML is appropriate for use in e-mail for interoperability.” They are also correct in identifying that “the Email Standards Project does not represent a sanctioned standard or an industry consensus in this area.”
As I highlighted at the start of this post, Microsoft have explicitly stated that the HTML and CSS support in Word 2007 is but a subset of existing standards. It is also interesting to note that they refer to the Internet Explorer 6.0 HTML Specification, another document which is not a sanctioned standard or an industry consensus in this area (or any, really).
It should be recognised that Email Standards Project is not about developing a new standard, or even a subset of an existing one. It does not portray itself to be a standards organisation at all.
This is demonstrated on their homepage by the clear mission statement:
Our goal is to help designers understand why web standards are so important for email, while working with email client developers to ensure that emails render consistently. This is a community effort to improve the email experience for both designers and readers alike.
In doing so, they have developed an acid test that they can use to measure the relative performance of each of the clients. This test is a subset of the existing standards, and a subset that they have arbitrarily agreed upon, however it is simply a tool for providing relative comparisons in the same way that we use the ACID1, ACID2 and ACID3 tests for web browsers. In fact, the IE 8 team considered passing ACID2 to be a milestone for their product’s development.
Meet in the middle?
The rendering comparison provided on fixoutlook.org does include one little morsel of hope. At the top of the Outlook 2010 rendering, you’ll notice an information bar that says “If there are problems with how this message is displayed, click here to view it in a web browser”. We can fairly safely assume that this will either flick the rendering engine to IE for that message only, or save it out to a temporary location and fire up the user’s default browser. The latter will have some challenges around embedded MIME data, however I imagine this is something they would have already solved in the pre-Word days of Outlook’s rendering.
Let’s get back to the original issue for a second: Word is being used to ensure a congruent authoring and rendering experiences, and a side effect of this is that emails authored with specific HTML and CSS do not render well.
Sound familiar? Web browsers solved this problem years ago with the introduction of multiple rendering modes driven by doctype switching. This has been adopted by every major browser manufacturer, including Microsoft, as a way of ensuring wide compatibility with varying levels of standards support.
The idea is by no means unique, but what’s stopping us from having Word as the rendering engine for emails received from another Outlook instance and IE as the rendering engine for emails the rest of the time?
- There is evidently code there already to detect when an IE-based render would produce better quality results.
- MIME already includes enough information for one to determine what application authored a message.
- I don’t think anybody is currently too concerned about the amount of rendering that is preserved when one attempts to forward an EDM. This is troublesome ground across every email client out there.
We don’t need to radically change Word to support a whole bunch of new renderings. We don’t need to tear Word out of Outlook (despite what some of the campaign supporters have been saying).
All we’re asking for is a reliable and consistent way for the web developers of the world to deliver styled emails to Oulook, one of the best messaging platforms out there.
6th July, 1501: John Liu accurately brought up the anti-trust restrictions around the packaging of Internet Explorer. These restrictions apply to the shipping of Internet Explorer as a product, and do not relate to the underlying rendering engine (mshtml.dll). In fact, The Help & Support interface in Windows 7 relies on this rendering engine itself: