Just say “no” to HTML in email

by billso on Sunday, 10 June 2007

Jef­frey Zeld­man made a good point in this post from Fri­day: email is no place for HTML.

HTML for­mat­ting is the sign of an ama­teur emailer.

Email was never meant to look nice. Email is sup­posed to be good old text. I have plenty of col­league and stu­dents who use HTML code in their email mes­sages. When I receive a fancy for­mat­ted email mes­sage, I won­der how much time the writer really spent on the content.

Peo­ple who read email on their phones and PDAs might not see that pre­cious for­mat­ting. Some web­mail clients can parse out the fancy HTML code in a mes­sage, so that the user can actu­ally read that mes­sage on a small screen. Isn’t email sup­posed to be read­able in the first place?

I also get mass email mes­sages loaded with HTML for­mat­ting by ven­dors, orga­ni­za­tions and com­pa­nies. These senders may not real­ize what they’re doing when they use col­ors, fonts and styles to make their mes­sages look perty.

Anal-retentive mar­keters want email cam­paigns to look like print.

They’re wast­ing my time and mail­box space with email that tries too hard to look like a printed piece. The fact that Microsoft has bro­ken 5 years of email for­mat­ting progress by bundling an old ren­der­ing engine into Out­look 2007 makes me won­der if Red­mond did that on purpose.

There’s plenty of mali­cious code that can be hid­den in an HTML email mes­sage. Out­look is still a big secu­rity hole for users and com­pa­nies, and crack­ers con­tinue to use these holes to deliver viruses, exploits and worms that exe­cute as soon as a mes­sage is pre­viewed or read on a user’s unpro­tected com­puter. Secu­rity is another good rea­son to turn off HTML ren­der­ing in an email client. If the client is ren­der­ing the for­mat­ting, there’s less risk of an attack.

Some­times I’m tempted to use HTML for­mat­ting in my own email, to deliver a table or a hyper­link. I’ve found that it’s eas­ier to build the table in a spread­sheet or word proces­sor, and to attach a small snap­shot of that table to the email mes­sage. Many email clients will con­vert a web address to a click­able link automatically.

Every time I set up a new instal­la­tion of Out­look for myself, I turn off HTML and Microsoft Word edit­ing in the email pref­er­ences. Here’s an excel­lent page from Ger­ald Boyd that describes more details of how and why to send plain text emails in a wide vari­ety of mail clients. Tha page hasn’t been updated since 2003, but it’s still a good place to start.

Of course, I’ve been using Gmail for a few years now, so I find myself using Out­look much less than I did in the 1998, when some peo­ple thought HTML for­mat­ted email was a good idea.

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