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A few weeks back, via the Web Standards Project, I learned of the Email Standards Project, a similar effort to encourage the adoption of HTML/CSS standards in email clients when rendering HTML emails.

All I can say is: about bloody time. Getting HTML mails to render consistently across different mail clients is a monumental pain in the arse. There are mail clients out there with HTML rendering in the same league as Netscape 4.x (translation: horrible) and it ain't just small fry, either. The ESP people highlight Google Gmail, Lotus Notes 8 and Outlook 2007 as among the worst offenders.

I'm disappointed, but not surprised, to see the announcement immediately attracted the usual rants about how HTML mail is evil and should never be sent/encouraged/tolerated/etc. I've encountered this viewpoint many times before, and while I'm sympathetic to most of the technical arguments1, I have to say: get over it, people.

To get rid of HTML email at this point in proceedings would require removing functionality (in some cases, default behaviour) from the top 10 or so email clients (yeah, Microsoft are soooo likely to do that2) and significantly altering the behaviour of 99.9% of the email-using population of the world. You'd probably need to kill every marketing person in the world too. People like HTML mail. They like to be able to use bigger text, fancy fonts, and even (shudder) marquee and blink elements.

Ranting against HTML mail is an exercise in futility. The horse hasn't just bolted, it's sired offspring from every mare in the country, taking time out half-way to come back and nick the mints out of your pocket. Trying to shut the stable door at this stage just makes you look like a foolish, dogmatic, elitist zealot. This is the sort of thing that leads people to view standardistas/open source advocates/linux-weenies as a group of wild-eyed lunatics who should be avoided like the plague, and it's counter-productive, because it drives ordinary users away from even contemplating a better way of doing things.3

The ESP is an important part of a far more productive approach: make HTML mail work better for everyone. Speak to software vendors, and get mail programs to respect user wishes better, so that those who want to sent plain text mail can do so easily. Get mail readers to render HTML mail in a sane way (this, in itself, stands a good chance of significantly reducing the badnwidth usage - a lot of the current bulk is because people have to use 1997-vintage table layouts and tag soup to make it look sensible in major mail clients). Get mail senders to include plain text alternatives and build the mail properly so that people who read text-only can still read them. The last couple add up to improve accessibility, too.

1saps bandwith, harder to construct programmatically, etc. There are compatibility arguments re: older mail clients, but most of them involve badly constructed mails which don't include text alternatives (see! they're trying to save bandwidth by not duplicating stuff!) or mails which have fallen foul of the appalling HTML rendering of some mail clients.

2Though they did completely shag the HTML rendering in the last outlook release - previous versions of Outlook were much better than Outlook 2007.

3To borrow liberally from a stock response to spam "solutions":

Your approach advocates a:

(x) technical ( ) legislative ( ) market-based (x) vigilante

approach to making email better. Your idea will not work. Here is why it
won't work. (One or more of the following may apply to your particular
idea, and it may have other flaws too.)

(x) Users of email will not put up with it
(x) Microsoft will not put up with it
(x) Most other software vendors will not put up with it
(x) Requires total cooperation from all email software vendors at the same time
(x) Requires total cooperation from everybody in the world
(x) Many email users cannot afford to alienate potential employers/customers

Specifically, your plan fails to account for

(x) Lack of centrally controlling authority for email
(x) Popularity of presentational twiddly bits like colours and fonts
(x) Public reluctance to accept removal of existing functionality
(x) Huge existing software investment in HTML Email
(x) Outlook
(x) The entire marketing industry

(and probably a whole bunch of other reasons I left out)


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April 2017

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