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, thatteam 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:

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.