Rob Knight

Someone at Microsoft hates me

January 20, 2007

Someone at Microsoft hates me. It is true. I’m not sure what I did to deserve so much hate, but it is upon me and I’m not alone. If you think there is a chance you might send an HTML email (anything besides plain text email probably has a bit of HTML in it), Someone at Microsoft hates you too.

It’s ok, you didn’t do anything. We’ll have a hug party about it later. Let me explain why you are hated.

Most email is plain text, nothing fancy. But HTML, the language of web pages, is allowed in email and it’s use in emails is increasing all the time. There is a huge debate over whether HTML belongs in email or not, but that is for geeks to debate in coffee shops. As part of my pro-bono career in web design, I’ve sent many HTML newsletters. It is a nice way to shine up your message and as long as it is done right, it works in all kinds of different email programs.

The challenge in creating HTML emails is to make them look the same no matter who you send them to. Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail and web-based email providers all have different rules that govern how they show email with HTML in it. Additionally, you have to make sure it looks ok in Outlook, Mozilla’s Thunderbird, Eudora, and on the Macintosh. It requires a little bit of voodoo and pixie dust to make one email look identical in all of those different email readers. But it can be done, usually by simplifying the HTML that you use and a lot of testing. Outlook and Thunderbird get help from their siblings when it comes to HTML email. Built into Outlook is the same HTML viewer that Internet Explorer uses. Thunderbird uses Firefox’s HTML viewer to show HTML email. This makes it easier to setup HTML email for these Outlook and Thunderbird. If it looks ok in IE and Firefox, it will generally look ok in Outlook and Thunderbird. Strong emphasis on generally because there is no substitute for a healthy round of testing when you prepare HTML email.

Microsoft has decided that wasn’t hard enough.

In the soon to be released Outlook 2007, Microsoft has replaced the HTML viewer. Rather than using the newer HTML viewer from Internet Explorer 7, they have instead opted to use the HTML viewer from Word.

Lets take a break for an analogy that will set the context for the coming rant:

Microsoft Word is to HTML, what:

  1. A chainsaw is to a healthy forest
  2. CO2 is to a stable climate
  3. George Bush is to diplomacy
  4. Ann Coulter is to the truth
  5. All of the above

If you answered E, I love you. That’s all you’ll ever need. Back to the show.

Microsoft has set the HTML email world back to the days before the iPod. Remember those days? Oh, the agony of having carrying around a small subset of my 8000 song music collection and not the entire thing so I can not listen to most of my music whenever I want!

Word’s HTML viewer is cruddy at best, downright shitty at worst, and a headache for most. Now it will be in charge of showing you your HTML email in Outlook 2007. There is a lot of speculation as to why, but Roger Johansson summed it up best (as did others) by just asking if Microsoft hated web developers. That sounds humorous, but I suspect they are half serious in asking. Microsoft has single handedly slowed innovation on the web with it’s inferior products for several years. Ask any web developer how much time they spend making their sites work well in Internet Explorer and they’ll give you an earful. Last fall’s release of Internet Explorer 7 was positive news for web developers. But it will now be overshadowed by the horrendous handling of HTML email in Outlook 2007. This is a serious step in the wrong direction that really hurts the web as a whole. Whether you like HTML email or not, Microsoft has decided for us what it will look like for the new several years. After all, they are the Deciders.