Microsoft Breaks HTML Email in Outlook 2007

I’m certainly not the first to report on this, but the effects have finally trickled down into my world and caused me enough of a headache to feel compelled to add my two cents to the ongoing debate.

Our good friends at Microsoft have done it again.

For years, they have been in the web browser market, producing Internet Explorer according to their own set of standards, (not the W3C’s) making life just a little more difficult for us web developers. Coding for modern, standards compliant browsers and IE6 at the same time is guaranteed to make even the savviest web coders wince in pain more than once. With the release of IE7, Microsoft is finally beginning to get it right. But, in keeping with years of tradition, they had to throw a wrench in there somewhere. Why? Because standards compliance always seems to take a backseat over at Microsoft.

HTML emails have always been subject to very specific rules in order to ensure that the message displays properly in most email clients. CSS positioning and JavaScript haven’t been widely supported in HTML emails for a long time, so tables and inline styles have been the name of the game for as long as this coder can remember. Outlook 2003 used IE6 as a rendering engine for its emails, so even though support was limited, marketers could rest assured that their emails would still render within a bona fide browser.

You would think with a new and improved Microsoft browser release (IE7), Outlook 2007 would be the HTML emailer’s dream. Using IE7 as a rendering engine would bring a new level of standards support and features to HTML emails in Outlook 2007.

That is, if Microsoft decided to use it.

So why in the world would they decide to use MS Word as a rendering engine for HTML emails? I can’t even begin to imagine why. The only thing I know is that emails I have coded that display beautifully in most, if not all, browsers and email clients suddenly don’t properly display in Outlook 2007. As a word processor, it is great, but as a browser, MS Word offers an incomplete rendering engine, missing features previously supported by IE6. This is truly moving backwards.

An article by CampaignMonitor.com claims that Microsoft has “taken e-mail back five years.” I would tend to agree, as five years ago I could do more with HTML emails than I can today – and still have widespread support.

I won’t go into all the details about what you can and cannot do, but you can read what Microsoft says about it here:
Word 2007 HTML and CSS Rendering Capabilities in Outlook 2007 (Part 1 of 2)

Here is a useful tool to help you craft your new HTML emails:
2007 Office System Tool: Outlook HTML and CSS Validator

Lack of Animated Gif Support
One thing the new Outlook doesn’t do is support animated gifs. Most other email clients do. So how do you cater to them all when creating an email marketing campaign, company newsletter, etc.? There is an interesting way around this that we came up with. (It does increase precious file size, but what else can you do?)

When creating your animated gif/banner, set the first frame to include your specific call to action, i.e… I recreate my last frame in the space of my first frame, but set its display time to 0 seconds. Now, in Outlook 2007, the last frame of my banner – which includes a call to action – displays first. And even though there is no animation, all the needed information is there. In other email clients, it skips over the first frame and goes straight into the animation. This eats up file size as you have to insert an extra frame, but it seems to do the job of creating a cross platform animated gif that can still be used in Outlook 2007.

Message to Microsoft
I’m glad you’re here, but I wish you’d grow up and start playing nicely with web developers. While everyone else works hard to create standards compliant software that eases the deployment of information on the web, you seem to keep doing things your own way – taking true progress in two completely different directions: the standards compliant way and the Microsoft way. And it just doesn’t do anyone any good.