If you ever have to create HTML emails for clients, the upcoming Outlook 2007 holds a nasty surprise. Microsoft have decided to remove the IE rendering engine and replace it with Word’s rather more poor one. In doing so they are pushing HTML emails back to the days of HTML 4.01 and CSS1 - those specs were last updated over 8 years ago. You’ve got to admit their timing sucks, just as IE finally gets a whole lot better, they decide to rip it out.
Take a look at the supported items and you’ll see there are no background images or css floats and positioning. How does this affect us? Well, it’s kinda like the browser position in the bad old days, if you are trying to push forward with CSS-based emails, you will be in for some headaches as they have made it pretty much impossible to do this. As Joe Hardy notes, even though align is supported, glitches make it useless - and the problems don’t stop there, check out his article for all the nasties. As Outlook is the primary company email client and comes with every Windows PC, it remains the most important email client out there for better or worse. The Campaign Monitor crew have a screenshot comparison of their CSS email newsletter in the Outlook 2000 and 2007 to show the difference the change of rendering engine really means.
Yes we could argue about whether HTML belongs in email, but many people expect it to be there - both clients and customers - that the view of developers is really not an issue. You cannot ignore that a graphical email has a lot more impact than a text-only one (assuming that the email client does not block the images by default, or the customer has the awareness to unblock them). Personally I think the decision to use HTML or text should be ruled by the content. HTML emails are particularly suited to e-commerce where the product is what the customer wants to see - Apple’s emails are a good example of these. Text-only emails are similarly effective where pure information is key - job board updates, blog newsletters and such. Like it or not HTML emails will continue to be requested and Microsoft have now made it more difficult to do this in a way that moves us forward.
They had a great opportunity to use the IE7 engine in Outlook, but instead have forced us to roll back our designs back to either fully table-based or text-based instead of the graceful degradation that CSS support could give us.