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  1. #1
    SitePoint Author Kevin Yank's Avatar
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    A New Standard for HTML Email

    If you're one of the many lucky readers of SitePoint's email newsletters who use Outlook 2007—whether by choice or not—then chances are you've noticed this newsletter and many others haven't looked quite right since the upgrade from Outlook 2003. Could the solution be standards for HTML email?

    Long time readers of the Tech Times may remember my rant in Tech Times #156 about Microsoft's choice to replace the Internet Explorer rendering engine in Outlook 2003 with a new engine based on Microsoft Word in Outlook 2007. Yes, that Microsoft Word. Clippy is reading your email as we speak.

    The fine folks at Freshview, the makers of the Campaign Monitor service for creating and sending high-quality HTML email newsletters, have led the ongoing efforts to get Microsoft to see reason and reverse this move, which frankly sets email technology back a decade.

    As it seems these pleas continue to fall on deaf ears, Freshview has proposed a new tack: define a (relatively) easy-to-support subset of HTML and CSS as a standard that HTML-capable email clients may strive to support. By setting a more achievable goal than the full HTML/CSS support we expect of web browsers, the theory goes, we may be able to drum up some interest in improving the HTML email landscape from vendors like Microsoft.

    This plan is outlined in a very thoughtful post on the Campaign Monitor Blog, which has since been followed up by an initial proposal for the baseline standard.

    Do you believe creating a new standard for HTML email will help improve the sorry state of standards support and interoperability in email clients?
    Kevin Yank
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    I wrote: Simply JavaScript | BYO PHP/MySQL | Tech Times | Editize
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  2. #2
    Programming Since 1978 silver trophybronze trophy felgall's Avatar
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    Yes but not from Microsoft who give the appearance that the think that they are big enough to ignore standards set by anyone else and to define their own instead.
    Stephen J Chapman

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  3. #3
    reads the ********* Crier silver trophybronze trophy longneck's Avatar
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    Yes but the banner needs to be carried by someone that everyone else would be ashamed to not follow behind. I don't think Freshview qualifies.

  4. #4
    Sesame Street Iimitk's Avatar
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    I agree with felgall that Microsoft should be eliminated from sch effort. They're already against it.

    Quote Originally Posted by longneck View Post
    I don't think Freshview qualifies.
    Why?!
    Imagination is more important than knowledge. - Einstein

  5. #5
    The Mind's I ® silver trophy Dark Tranquility's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by simsim View Post

    Why?!

    Because frshview are not considered as leaders or 'big guys' like Mozilla for instance

  6. #6
    Keep Moving Forward gold trophysilver trophybronze trophy
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    So what are we talking about here??...

    An e-mailML ??... a mark-up language specifically for multipart e-mails??




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  7. #7
    SitePoint Zealot Michel Merlin's Avatar
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    Too many standards yet. Adding a new one is doomed

    What we are suffering yet is too many standards, too big, too imprecise. What David Greiner is calling for and proposing is essentially adding another one. I think such effort is inappropriate and doomed.

    In addition, David Greiner's view is somewhat outdated and narrow-minded. He is trying e.g. to engrave in marble a habit (the double-format in sending email messages, Plain Text and HTML) that is a costly transitional way and is near from its natural end (just an example).

    Versailles, Sat 29 Sep 2007 08:08:50 +0200

  8. #8
    reads the ********* Crier silver trophybronze trophy longneck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by simsim View Post
    I agree with felgall that Microsoft should be eliminated from sch effort. They're already against it.
    the problem with "eliminating" microsoft from the process is that microsoft has such an ASTRONOMICAL installed user base that will keep upgrading to the newest product that unless you get them on board (or force them in to submission) then the movement will die.

    the only way i see an improvement is if enough large corporations say "no" and threaten to not upgrade or switch to a different product.

  9. #9
    SitePoint Zealot Michel Merlin's Avatar
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    800M support MS with wallets, 1M support W3C with talks

    I think like longneck that excluding MS is not really an option. In addition, 80% of ~1B PC users (i.e. 800,000,000 users) are supporting MS' choices with their feet and wallets; OTOH, probably less than 1M are supporting W3C and other "official" bodies' choices with their talks and rants ; inbetween, ~200M mozilla users are in facts supporting none (even if they are said by others to support one side or another). Which ones should be followed in democracies?

    Versailles, Sat 29 Sep 2007 15:57:30 +0200

  10. #10
    SitePoint Member
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    I believe there exists a much larger issue with HTML email that could be resolved by another standard.

    Many companies (my own included) as well as all US government systems have removed HTML email as an option. They feel it is too great a security risk and have limited all email systems to text only submissions. This relegates all HTML newsletters and HTML formatted email to the realm of unreadable gibberish.

    If a standard for formatted HTML emails could be developed that eliminated most if not all the percieved security risks, many of us could enjoy the SitePoint newsletters again. Thanks for having the online archive available.

  11. #11
    SitePoint Zealot Michel Merlin's Avatar
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    The anti-HTML fatwa is fading away

    Quote Originally Posted by NoLimitHoss View Post
    ...all US government systems have removed HTML email as an option...
    The fatwa against HTML seems IMO fading away; even the forum ayatollahs have ceased to lynch HTML posters (incidentally you are here reading and posting on a forum that has handled all posts in HTML for a long time now). Security risks are more accurately appraised and more efficiently handled. So that fear of HTML has vanished from individuals; the flower seller at your corner has probably written her email in HTML for about a decade now. Sure in big organizations any evolution or adaptation takes longer - the longest being of course the heaviest, i.e. governments. But I do think that most people now have cleared the case "Read all messages in plain text" in their OE (or whatever equivalent in their own email client).

    Versailles, Mon 1 Oct 2007 15:54:35 +0200

  12. #12
    Sesame Street Iimitk's Avatar
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    What are the security risks of HTML emails rather than JavaScript event triggers?
    Imagination is more important than knowledge. - Einstein

  13. #13
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    Quote Originally Posted by Michel Merlin View Post
    Sure in big organizations any evolution or adaptation takes longer - the longest being of course the heaviest, i.e. governments. But I do think that most people now have cleared the case "Read all messages in plain text" in their OE (or whatever equivalent in their own email client).

    Versailles, Mon 1 Oct 2007 15:54:35 +0200
    It is not a matter of these organizations adopting HTML email. They allowed HTML email until two months ago when filtering software was added to convert HTML formatted email into text only messages.

  14. #14
    Sesame Street Iimitk's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dark Tranquility View Post
    Because frshview are not considered as leaders or 'big guys' like Mozilla for instance
    So sad it's true..

    Quote Originally Posted by longneck View Post
    the only way i see an improvement is if enough large corporations say "no" and threaten to not upgrade or switch to a different product.
    Ah, that would be a big disappointment then, as the large corporations are fonder of Microsoft than the folks at Channel 9
    Imagination is more important than knowledge. - Einstein

  15. #15
    phpLD Fanatic bronze trophy dvduval's Avatar
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    Personally, I prefer not to receive html email, and if it is required, I would prefer to visit a webpage where I can get more information.

  16. #16
    SitePoint Evangelist Karpie's Avatar
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    For those of us who design and code HTML e-mails, such a standard would be very nice to have. I'm getting rather annoyed with spending an hour coding an e-mail, then spending the next ten hours testing it to make sure it looks ok in every client possible (and I'm sure I still miss a lot of them).

  17. #17
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    Yes, and No.
    A new standard would be useful, in the long term, IF it was ever adopted, assuming that it was written in a way that removed all of the current issues.

    However, I think that a lot of people are missing the point of the main problem that initiated this discussion: MS would prefer to use its Office technologies for eMail than the IE base. I suspect it will be easier to persuade them to reverse that decision than it would be to introduce a new base rendering engine into Office, at a time when they are concentrating on Silverlight or whatever it's called.
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  18. #18
    SitePoint Evangelist IJoeR's Avatar
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    I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out what would possess microsoft to make such a drastic change to there software. They've also only changed Outlook 2007. The Windows Mail (formerly Outlook Express) still uses IE rendering engine, correct? Why change one and not the other?

    If anything they should have changed Microsoft Word to use the IE rendering engine and left Outlook 2007 alone. That would have accomplished the same thing (I think it was microsofts way of getting there programs to communicate better, but in the process they have screwed us web developers.)

    BTW, I consider myself a web developer not a data entry expert so why would I want anything I make to look like something out of Word. I hate word.

    I wish OpenOffice had a free email client.

    Unfortunately, Microsoft is big enough to dictate how things can work.

  19. #19
    SitePoint Zealot Michel Merlin's Avatar
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    MS moving email from HTML to an MS-proprietary XML

    Quote Originally Posted by IJoeR View Post
    I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out what would possess microsoft...
    ...should have changed Microsoft Word to use the IE rendering engine and left Outlook 2007 alone.
    We can only guess. In such a big organization you can't avoid having, 1st plenty internal rivalries or other possible causes of incoherence, 2nd political-like agendas (that unfortunately often prove business-successful).

    OTOH, remember that BG and MS often have been presented as dreaming of owning the rights on everything intellectual, from all paints in the world, to the English language itself (see Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry--and Made Himself the Richest Man in America and my comment of 22 Jun 2001). One dream once lent to BG was that none could speak one phrase using the English language without paying something to MS.

    In such perspective, one can assume that MS is trying that none can write or read an email message without using something MS. A way to achieve that was to pull the market into writing everything in DOC format; it proved too difficult because DOC documents are too bloated, and DOC format is too obviously proprietary. So, another way is replacing DOC format with an XML-made format, which 1st can be less bloated, more modern and more efficient, 2nd is - at least apparently - less proprietary.

    To draw email traffic to the MS-owned "XML" format (in facts a proprietary XML that I will call "Office-XML"), "better" is to do it while the "Office" format is still perceived as the old bloated DOC, so people won't worry too much. Then when the move (of email from "IE" to "Office") is advanced enough, then they can push further and faster the move from DOC to "Office-XML".

    If MS kept using a public format (like HTML) for email messages in Windows and Office, they would simply remain unable to catch the email traffic in their nets.

    This is so far the only explanation I found to their weird announcement of moving email from "IE" format to "Office" format.

    Versailles, Wed 17 Oct 2007 19:33:40 +0200

  20. #20
    SitePoint Member
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    Quote Originally Posted by NoLimitHoss View Post
    I believe there exists a much larger issue with HTML email that could be resolved by another standard.

    Many companies (my own included) as well as all US government systems have removed HTML email as an option. They feel it is too great a security risk and have limited all email systems to text only submissions. This relegates all HTML newsletters and HTML formatted email to the realm of unreadable gibberish.

    If a standard for formatted HTML emails could be developed that eliminated most if not all the percieved security risks, many of us could enjoy the SitePoint newsletters again. Thanks for having the online archive available.
    This is a bigger problem than which rendering engine gets used. Many over paranoid administrators have set up their company's spam filters to just reject anything which is html email.

    No content monitoring, even if you are in the whitelist, if your email is html it ends up in a junk folder.

    The system I develope generates many emails in reponse to end user actions, booking confirmations, purchase orders, reports etc. They look stupid sent as plain text, I don't want to generate pdf attachments as I don't believe attachments have the same impact.

    I don't use any complex css or html tricks in my emails and don't find a problem how the result is rendered. My problem is just getting the mail through.

  21. #21
    SitePoint Enthusiast Tygatur's Avatar
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    Personally I'd like HTML-Mails to be abolished - simply because a webpage is different from an email.
    A webpage generally contains lots of content and an email has just essential information(of course I'm excluding spam here^^).

    Naturally I like to have a design wrapped around the content on a website but when I'm reading my mail I want to get the job done as fast as possible.

    Of course certain text-emphasizers like <i><b> and <u> can be useful but I don't see a real problem in emphasizing certain portions of text without HTML.
    Or can anyone give me an example where a HTML Mail would be really accurate?

    And just think back to the bad old days when you could encounter <marquee> and <blink> tags on some websites. I know this is a radical example but keep in mind that there are people who overuse HTML tags.
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  22. #22
    SitePoint Zealot Michel Merlin's Avatar
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    Tygatur, "abolishing" HTML (or MARQUEE or BLINK) because a (very) few people have misused them, is like forbidding baseball bats because a (very) few bad guys have attacked people with them. Misusers and abolishers are showing IMO the same kind of poor judgment. More, such reasoning is quite outdated now after email has been handled using HTML for a decade by millions people with no or very little problems compared to the great power it brings. Leaving HTML available doesn't force you to use it, and whatever yours, most circles are using alternatively HTML or Plain Text to send their messages, according to circumstances in a very appropriate, measured and efficient manner; "abolishing" HTML in email would be a 10-year backstep.

    Versailles, Thu 18 Oct 2007 23:17:35 +0200

  23. #23
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    Tygatur, Sounds like you would also support a move to re-introduce the man with a red flag walking in front of all motor cars too.

    A long as you don't enforce your ideas on others I guess it doesnt matter but try engaging your imagination. The "medium is the message" and plain text can't convey it effectively.

  24. #24
    SitePoint Enthusiast Tygatur's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Michel Merlin View Post
    Tygatur, "abolishing" HTML (or MARQUEE or BLINK) because a (very) few people have misused them, is like forbidding baseball bats because a (very) few bad guys have attacked people with them.
    It may be just me but as far as I can think back there has never been a HTML mail in my inbox which made me think that the sender knows how to use HTML mail. Of course this is subjective and other people may feel different about this.

    Misusers and abolishers are showing IMO the same kind of poor judgment.
    The problem with mail is that there are at least 2 people involved.
    I don't mind if other people send each other HTML mail but in most cases I can't decide if I get plaintext or HTML from someone.

    More, such reasoning is quite outdated now after email has been handled using HTML for a decade by millions people with no or very little problems compared to the great power it brings.
    Which brings us back to the question: What is HTML mail _really_ good for?

    Leaving HTML available doesn't force you to use it, and whatever yours, most circles are using alternatively HTML or Plain Text to send their messages, according to circumstances in a very appropriate, measured and efficient manner;
    I agree that's a nice thing to have both versions(plaintext+HTML) in an email. Unfortunately that's not always the case.

    "abolishing" HTML in email would be a 10-year backstep.
    Let's get back to the topic: How would you define a rough version of the standard?
    Which Tags are a must-have which would be nice?

    Tygatur, Sounds like you would also support a move to re-introduce the man with a red flag walking in front of all motor cars too.
    I don't see the advantages of HTML mail. Can you tell me?

    A long as you don't enforce your ideas on others I guess it doesnt matter but try engaging your imagination. The "medium is the message" and plain text can't convey it effectively.
    And HTML can?
    Just because you can use colors and images it doesn't mean that your message is more clear to the reader.
    to code or not to code ?
    that's too much of a question for a signature.

  25. #25
    SitePoint Zealot Michel Merlin's Avatar
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    Used appropriately, HTML is highly efficient in email

    Thx Tygatur for replying.

    1st, sorry for one of my phrases that was not precise enough, so I rewrite it (main changes or adds in bold, removals in red):
    Leaving HTML available doesn't force you to misuse it, and whatever yours, most circles are sending alternatively HTML or Plain Text to send their messages, and using HTML in them, in a very appropriate, measured and efficient manner, according to circumstances
    Now you wrote:
    Quote Originally Posted by Tygatur View Post
    as far as I can think back there has never been a HTML mail in my inbox which made me think that the sender knows how to use HTML mail
    I feel alike about email received from big companies, where so-called "customer service" is usually entrusted to staff who are assumed irresponsible and low-educated, which automatically make them selected and oriented that way. The bigger the company, the most useless and most bloated the message.

    But from individuals (or one-person companies), the emails I receive are often much more sensible, they are often in PT, and when in HTML, it is often (not always I admit) used appropriately and usefully.

    Personally I send much email in HTML.
    1. Structure

      When you email, it is generally to tell something to someone. If you have to do so, it is most often because there is some difficulty in guessing or understanding - or you wouldn't write. Examples: the recipient is not in the same context as you, is not seeing the same things, and there is some sort of ambiguity or complexity.

      Hence most of messages (this one being just one more example) need some complexity and length - if you are able to make them short while clear, you will gain high efficiency; but often I can't, either due to my own capabilities, or to the sheer complexity of the issue (big or small). I think that, even if yourself and your correspondent are both with the same mother language (which most often implies native English speakers), you will have some amount of the same problem.

      If you write something long sans spending the time to structure it, your recipient will either miss what you are saying, or waste his time - or both.

      Hence, most email messages need some amount of structure, thus of formatting. Hence, using HTML will let you make most messages faster at writing, faster at reading, safer at both.
    2. Images

      An image is worth a hundred words.

      In an HTML message, your image appears right in its due place inside the explanation; in a PT message, your message is longer for the eye (you need to display both the label and the URL), and your recipient has to click the URL, or even to copy it and paste it in another window or tab.

      The image should be included as a link, not as a copy, so the image won't make the message heavier (in Bytes): in most cases it's better to use an image already posted somewhere, that the recipient already knows, which will faster remind him of what you mean; in other (rare) cases you can upload your image to an image host (e.g. ImageShack®).

      Now I admit that, again due to MS sloppy work, most people are including images as copies instead of as links. The MS error is double:

      • the option is hidden in OE (Outlook Express) behind lengthy menu cascades and inaccurate and unclear wording ("Tools > Options > Send", then in both "Mail Sending Format" and "News Sending Format", open "HTML Settings" and clear the case "Send pictures with message");
      • the default is this case checked, resulting in people sending copies of images when they think they send a link, thus bloating their message, and losing the automatic update if the image source is changed.

      Once you change these settings in your email client, you can send email messages that are at the same time very informative and very light and fast to write and to read.
    3. External Links

      I don't feel the right to bother someone with forcing them to google to find what I am talking about, so almost all my messages contain a couple links. A too big proportion of URLs are uselessly long (e.g. Philips France Microchaînes), and too many recipients are still (not their fault - culprits are MS and other email client writers) with bad settings in their email client (explanations in For Long URLs, Accentuated Chars, encode as Quoted-Printable, Western European (ISO), use "EUR" for Euro symbol), in which case long URLs in Plain Text messages won't work unless copied-pasted-merged. Writing in HTML fully removes all these problems and lets me oppositely make a text short, clear, easy and comfortable to read, and more reliable since links will work anywhere and for anyone.
    4. Internal Links

      When explaining something complex, your text is much clearer if you offer the reader relevant links to the other parts inside your own message. Easy to do in HTML, impossible in PT.
    Of course all these tools are to be used sensibly. Recently I reported a bug to BitDefender. As most bugs it was tricky, in itself, in understanding it, and in guessing the cause. Once I had spent too much time on it, BitDefender would probably not have read my report if it had required the same time to read. So I sent a message reporting all the messages displayed, in a structured presentation, with tables and texts with color and background-colors monkeying what I saw on my screen, paragraphs and internal links. They were very happy and started to work on the issue (solved since - I can't know if my own report was useful but I think so). In PT this would have been impossible, even with spending three more time.

    Now let's not get blind: sure it's normal we focus on the ones using HTML wrongly, sure they are numerous; but let's open eyes, a number others are using HTML appropriately; and more important, most people would gladly do so if a few settings in OE and others were a little better designed and explained.

    Versailles, Fri 19 Oct 2007 16:43:35 +0200


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