What’s wrong with Outlook?

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:

XBox Newsletter

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:

Side-by-side rendering of Twitter email in Word and IE

(click for full size)

Why now?

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?

  1. There is evidently code there already to detect when an IE-based render would produce better quality results.
  2. MIME already includes enough information for one to determine what application authored a message.
  3. 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:


22 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Outlook?

  1. “The rendering comparison provided on fixoutlook.org does include one little morsel of hope.”

    Well, no, it doesn’t. The “View in a browser” link is also in the Outlook 2000 rendering. It’s industry standard for email designers — not email client software — to insert this link, to an external web page, exactly because of rendering issues exemplified by Outlook 2007 and 2010. There are times when you just can’t accommodate every quirk of every different email client out there — if you get it working well in 25 clients, do you have the time to spend trying to hack it to work in that last one, without breaking it in the other 25? The only way to ensure your audience sees what you intended is to direct them to view it in a completely separate rendering engine — their web browser.

    Oddly, if standards support across web browsers was so poor that it was standard industry practice to direct your audience to use a completely different piece of software to see your website, people would be upset. They might even be inclined to insist that developers do something about it. Developers might even listen. But not so for email. Huh.

    1. Hi Kat,

      I’m referring to the link provided in the Outlook interface, not within the message body itself. This demonstrates that the Outlook codebase is already aware of messages that would be better rendered in a browser.

      – Tatham

  2. It is unfortunate that Microsoft seems to think the world revolves around them alone.

    We build custom Internet-based software, most of which makes use of formatted email. With Microsoft’s failure to adopt even the same level of HTML compliance in Outlook 2003, we’re forced to tell our clients that they need to pay to upgrade their software to support Microsoft’s non-complaint products.

    So, Microsoft’s poor performance causes the rest of the industry to downgrade (at significant cost) to provide support.

  3. YES.

    I think this is the best, most accurate, to the point post I’ve read on this subject to date.
    Well done and thank you.

    It might be good to note that the latest version of Internet Explorer, just recently released, still uses multiple rendering engines, and switches engines based on the html doctype(or specific meta/header data)

  4. Tatham great post! Very clear and well thought out… now if we could only get Gmail onto this whole new-fangled web standards thing then things would really be happening.

    I find it completely ridiculous that Microsoft are complaining about email marketing campaigns. How many Microsoft email marketing campaign emails do we get from Microsoft every month!

  5. Why did CM choose to target Outlook instead of Gmail or both in this campaign?

    1. Hi Dan,

      One target at a time. 🙂 The wider ESP mission covers all clients, this was just one targetted campaign for Outlook.

      – Tatham

  6. @ Dan G and because Outlook 2007 is a far bigger piece of the pie, at least at the moment.

  7. Tatham,

    This is a great post. Thank you. I hope that your examples of the poor user experience of Word as a rendering engine resonate with the powers that be. You’ve helped clarify the business reason why MS should fix the rendering issue – people don’t want to buy an email program that makes everyday messages look crappy. Every person who has sent an email newsletter has become aware of this issue since Outlook 2007 was introduced. The fixoutlook.org campaign has shone a light on a facet of Outlook 2010 that, if not addressed, will cost MS market share.

  8. Just curious – in the EU you can get windows that doesn’t come with IE8.

    The default rendering in Outlook will have to be able to switch to whatever-rendering engine the user has installed – I don’t see this happening. If there’s an exploit via Outlook -> Gecko engine, Microsoft will surely eat the blame. I don’t see why MS needs to support other browser engines in this case.

    So in the case where no other suitable rendering engine is available on the computer – Outlook has to stick with the Word rendering engine.

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  10. You make me very happy I only dabble in web and app design.
    For those of us who JUST want to use the product, is there any way to turn this obnoxious message on almost every HTML Outlook 2010 email OFF FOR GOOD? Would pay for that hack – !

  11. Outlook 2003
    I have used Outlook for the 8 or 9 years, its always been a bit quirky, but now in it’s later years it is fumbling to the point of irritation. Outlook forgets email addresses, passwords and never remembers my email address is not junk mail!
    I am afraid to reinstall it for fear that it will lose all of the good attributes I have configured, like my personnel files, email addresses, calendar and in box. Be assured I have backed up all the things that can be backed up. We shall just suffer along until something better comes along.

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