The “Power” of Word in Outlook

You may have come across a URL for a webpage that is (effectively) building a petition to Microsoft to correct HTML support in Outlook — and if you haven’t, just click on the link. The petition’s purpose is quite simple: Please, Dear Microsoft, replace the HTML rendering present in Microsoft Outlook 2010 with something better.

Microsoft, to their credit, has seen this petition and has authored their own response: The Power of Word in Outlook.  The sad reality is that, even though written by William Kennedy,  Corporate Vice President, Office Communications and Forms Team, that  team has completely missed the point of the petition.

And it raises the question: Why is Microsoft — yet again — refusing to listen to the people who know best? Not the developers of a system, but its users.

Web Developers world-wide have contended with Outlook and is continually-degrading ability to render even the most compliant of HTML for emails. Given, Outlook is not alone in this criticism, as some other email clients are even worse (listen up, Lotus Notes). HTML emails have had their problems over the years, and JavaScript was (wisely) dropped by most vendors some time ago.

The cries from developers are clear: Why, oh why, are we not able to render HTML properly, and use CSS to style it?

Because, for some strange reason, Outlook uses the Microsoft Word engine to render its HTML. (And why Word has an HTML renderer separate from Internet Explorer remains another question.) Microsoft views this, however, as a good thing. To read their post today, they point out:

However, there are a number of fallacies with their logic. Which is deeply concerning, as it strongly suggests that the Outlook development team is out of touch with the industry (odd, considering they seem to follow Twitter).

There are a few points in their introductory paragraphs to which I take objection. I’ll quote them so we can address them more specifically.

The Email Standards Project, which developed the website that promotes the current Twitter campaign, is backed by the maker of “email marketing campaign” software.

Yes, the Email Standards Project might have started this effort, but they do not stand alone in the petition. There are thousands of other developers in this industry who are also asking. We’ve been asking for a long time, too.

[We] believe it’s the best e-mail authoring experience around, with rich tools that our Word customers have enjoyed for over 25 years.

Um, what? Seriously, do you folks have a different set of software that I’ve worked with since 1989? Again, Mr. Kennedy (and Microsoft), you’re missing the entire point: It’s not the  creation of the email that’s the problem. It’s the  viewing — the important part of the communication process. The HTML renderer in Microsoft Word is so utterly broken that it can’t even render a simple HTML email without forcing us to violate every standard we know, and write HTML that makes most professional web developers want to hide in a dark corner.

But for the sake of argument, people who create HTML emails professionally do NOT want to use Microsoft Word as an editor — we barely tolerate it as a tool to display our source copy decks. If you honestly “believe it’s the best e-mail authoring experience around”, you clearly have not tried to support emails on multiple email clients at once.

And yes, Word has been around for 25 years. This is not necessarily a good thing. May I remind you that Microsoft Word was originally just a word processor? Then you turned it into a (seriously flawed) desktop publisher? Shoe-horning HTML editor support was a complete joke in Word 95 (even considering how bad most HTML was back then), and has barely improved since.

(And you probably have 25-year old code in there, too. Maybe you should clean it up a bit?)

But even those don’t hold a candle to the insipidity of the “examples” of why Word is a great HTML email editor. They offer:

  • SmartArt
  • Drawing and Charting Tools
  • Table and Formatting Tools
  • Mini Toolbar for formatting

When I read these, I just about had an apoplectic seizure. SmartArt?! Who the hell are you trying to kid, Mr. Kennedy? As a Corporate Vice President, you should make sure your advisers are providing accurate information about what the industry is doing, and where they’re having the most pain.

We in the interactive marketing world will never use any of those features. Why? Aside from the fact that they are gawd-awfully ugly (and keep in mind this is coming from a programmer, not an artist), the use of these tools creates HTML that is incompatible with almost every non-Microsoft email client (including HotMail, I should add). Please do not get me started on the drivel that comes out to recreate a table.

We understand that e-mail is about interoperability among various e-mail programs, and we believe that Outlook provides a good mix of a rich user experience and solid interoperability with a wide variety of other e-mail programs.

Last I checked, Outlook really only worked well with Exchange. (And don’t get me started on Entourage.) As a communications tool, it’s a useful program — I use it all day, every day. But it’s not a good authoring tool. Authoring is best done in other applications. And heaven forbid you developed your HTML outside of Outlook — the import and send never works. Never. We have to use something like Thunderbird to get a decent result.

There is no widely-recognized consensus in the industry about what subset of HTML is appropriate for use in e-mail for interoperability. The “Email Standards Project” does not represent a sanctioned standard or an industry consensus in this area.

(Their formatting, not mine.)

No, it does not. But, you know, there’s this little group called the World Wide Web Consortium. Remember them? No, they don’t specify a subset of HTML that is “appropriate for use in e-mail”. And that’s the point. There isn’t one, nor should there be one. You’re the dumbasses who started restricting things for no particular (or good) reason. HTML is HTML, and it should remain that way.

So, please, Microsoft: Extract your head from your ass, stop looking at your face in the mirror, cease whatever self-obsessed activity you’re currently engaged in. Actually go out into the industry, do some fucking research, and start making software people actually want to use.

Hint: There’s a reason Apple is doing so well right now.

8 Replies to “The “Power” of Word in Outlook”

  1. I just read the white paper on the Outlook 2007 approach that is being perpetuated in Outlook 2010.

    It strikes me as reasonable if you are interested iin Outlook-Outlook communication, of course.

    But from the white paper, it seems that rendering of incoming HTML-based e-mail is done by Outlook and it is the same whether a matching version of Word is isntalled or not.

    That they’ve chosen to not make their engine dependent on Internet Explorer is reasonable, especially since they can’t count on IE being there and then claim they don’t want to be dependent on IE updates (or updates to the HTML support that is bolted into Windows).

    Personally, I only render receive and display e-mail in plaintext. If it also has an HTML form, I will look at that only when it is from a trusted source and I am interested in reading it that way. I also like the ability to read e-mail while off-line, especially when reviewing older e-mails. In those cases, the e-mails that are self-contained and don’t require access to web sites in order to render are far more preferable for me, and the standards for that seem to be good enough.

    For authoring without Word, you can control that by not having a matching version of Word (2007 or 2010, respectively) installed on the machine running Outlook.

  2. Oh Geoff – you’re bringing back memories from my dim and distant past…..

    “And it raises the question: Why is Microsoft — yet again — refusing to listen to the people who know best? Not the developers of a system, but its users.”

    Back in the dark ages (late 80’s, very early 90’s) IBM came out with a new workstation running it’s own version of UNIX (one would thing with the number of OS installs I did that I would remember what it was called….RSX maybe?). The software company I worked for at the time had things running on 4 different UNIX platforms, three of which had very similar and the fourth, well lets just say that while many of the commands were similar, the operators/modifiers were very, very different. It took weeks to track down the proper operators (if they even existed) and to modify things like the software installation scripts. Being just out of school, I was able to get away with asking such awkward questions as “Why is this so different?” The answer – “IBM doesn’t follow standards, they set standards.” Strangely enough, when the next version of their workstations and OS came out, it looked a whole lot more like SunOS (pre Solaris).

    Unfortunately, that same company that I worked for all those years ago was just as guilty as Microsoft in not listening to what was really wanted by the users. We had two parallel development streams at the time (why is a long and sordid tale I won’t go into here) and working for the “other” one, I was tasked with talking to the field reps about what new features the customer base wanted. Of course, those leading the regular development stream got wind of this and insisted on telling me that the customers really didn’t want digital elevation models, that they wanted more colours to display on their maps. It’s almost 20 years later and I still have to shake my head……

  3. Orcmid,

    The IE engine can be easily bundled separately (and independently) as a library for use within any application. There is no reason I can think of why they’d go to the trouble of exporting Word’s HTML engine separately, and not do it with a far-superior rendering engine.

    Outlook-to-Outlook is fine for internal communication, but in my experience most people don’t go to those extremes anyway — they usually include Word, Excel, Powerpoint, or PDF attachments to do that stuff for them.

  4. Hey Lyn,

    I remember some days like that when I worked at DEC. But those situations are different. The environment is much more homogeneous now, and standards are well-inked. My issue with Microsoft is their blatant and deliberate ignorance of them. It baffles me why they would think this way.

  5. IBM was aware of the standards of the time (DEC, Sun and HP followed very similar protocols) but blatantly ignored them – for a while at least. That’s the problem with organizations that big – and they wonder why people are gunning for them 😉

  6. Oh come on, Lyn! You know as well as I do that DEC, Sun, and HP (along with IBM) all reveled in their own proprietary standards and only caved to international standards when their market shares all came at risk from other upstarts.

  7. When I first saw the MSDN blog on the continued use and “power” of Word in Outlook, I had to check the URL twice to ensure I wasn’t reading a parody.
    I am reminded of this joke:
    A man had been convicted of a capital crime in Medieval Japan. The High exectutioner was summoned, he was known for his, swiftness, his efficiency and his comparatively humane nature: His Katana was sharper than can possibly be imagined.
    The criminal asked that he be beheaded standing up and the executioner agreed to his request.
    At the execution the condemned man faced his exectutioner and before he knew it the blade flashed before him. Much to his relief, his head didn’t leave his neck. Surprised he looked the executioner in the eye and said “that was lucky, I guess I am free to go”.

    The executioner replied, “yes sir, but please, kindly nod”.

    I think it’s time the directorship at Microsoft should nod.
    They are dead and just don’t know it yet.

    1. I think that’s true of some Microsoft leadership (*cough* Ballmer *cough*), but some have it right. Ozzie could pull it off, but he’s gotta play his cards right — namely not piss off the Microsoft Board or Microsoft’s key stockholders (e.g. Gates), lest he get his walking papers before he can make changes.

      As for the underlings who refuse to accept reality… I think seppuku would be far more an honourable option for them.

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