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27-Jul-2007

Outlook 2007 and HTML Email

The new version of the Microsoft Office email client, Outlook 2007, has dealt a serious blow to html email designers. Outlook 2007 is the first email client to use the Microsoft Word rendering engine to render html emails.

Email designers assumed that the new version of Outlook would use the Internet Explorer 7 rendering engine, and many (including Kevin Yank and David Greiner, who provides a compare-and-contrast of the way that an html email is rendered in old and new Outlook) were horrified to hear of the move to using Microsoft Word. Word's html rendering is extremely limited, and has no support for background images, little CSS support, and fails to render adequately (or at all) a whole variety of other important design features and tools.

David Greiner argues that this sets email design back by at least five years; table-based layouts and inline CSS are to be the order of the day, just when, he says, valuable progress was being made towards standards-compliancy by email designers. The major benefit of CSS email design is that the end user can turn it off and the email will degrade reasonably gracefully into plaintext. This kind of user-end control will be impossible with table-based html email designs.

Some commentators have suggested that Microsoft is concerned about security flaws in IE7, and this is the reasoning behind its move to using the Word rendering engine. But this seems unlikely, since Microsoft has so touted the improved security of their new web browser. However, Microsoft claims that the decision was made to use the Word rendering engine because, by default, Word is used to compose emails in Outlook, so end users will see their emails rendered in the same format as they compose them. This is hardly a good reason, though: thousands of emails aren't composed in Outlook, and surely an email composed in Outlook should render perfectly in a modern browser.

CSS email designers were enjoying vastly improved support for their designs in Thunderbird and various webmail programs. Even Hotmail was improving. Unfortunately, given the vast percentage of email users who use Outlook estimates tend to settle at around 70% - continuing to design CSS emails is likely to alienate too large a proportion of email users to be justifiable. What's more, the new version of Hotmail, Windows Live Mail, displays some CSS, but not all.

Many CSS email designers feel they've now been wasting their time over the last two years, encouraging people to design accessible, standards-compliant emails. Microsoft is now under pressure to dramatically improve the Word rendering engine.

By Brian Jackson

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