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Will Outlook 2007 Wreck Your E-Mail?

The e-mail program does a poor job of rendering HTML, but there are ways to work around the problems it creates.
If you switch to Outlook 2007 from some earlier Microsoft e-mail program -- such as Outlook 2003 or Outlook Express -- many of the messages you receive will start looking very weird.

That's because Outlook 2007 no longer uses the HTML rendering capabilities of Internet Explorer, which by and large has a very good command of HTML. Instead, Outlook 2007 displays e-mail messages using Word for Windows, which is notorious for its mangling of HTML.

David Greiner -- an executive of Campaign Monitor, a company that specializes in making e-mails work correctly in all kinds of programs -- wrote recently that Outlook 2007 "takes e-mail design back five years."

Now there's a free resource that shows you exactly how badly Outlook 2007 garbles e-mail messages that look fine in many other e-mail programs.

A Free Guide to How Bad Outlook 2007 Is

First, it's important to point out that today's uproar in the HTML standards community is not about whether people should send e-mails using plain text versus the different fonts and colors that are available with HTML.

Different senders get different results, of course, but most companies that communicate with customers via e-mail find that response rates are better for HTML messages than plain-text messages. An informal survey by e-mail consultant Jeanne Jennings found that responses can be 50 percent higher.

People aren't going to stop using HTML to format e-mail messages any more than they're going to revert to Morse code for communications. When given a choice between receiving messages in pretty HTML formats or drab plain text, consumers overwhelmingly select the HTML option, in almost every case that's been tested.

That's one reason why it's fairly shocking how badly Outlook 2007 supports HTML standards that have been around for a decade or more.

One company that specializes in helping companies troubleshoot their e-mail problems, Pivotal Veracity, is now distributing a free PowerPoint presentation that illustrates Outlook 2007's new weaknesses.

Some of the firm's examples show that e-mail messages that look fine in previous versions of Outlook, even in Microsoft's old Outlook Express, wind up looking in Outlook 2007 like jigsaw pieces that haven't been assembled yet.

What Outlook 2007 Does Wrong

The basic issue is that Word for Windows, unlike Internet Explorer, has poor support for HTML standards. These practices were developed years ago to add simplicity and predictability to Web content. The standards include "styles," also known as CSS or cascading style sheets. Styles make it possible for the creator of an e-mail message to define fonts, colors, and other objects at the beginning of a message, rather than redefining them over and over throughout a message, wasting time and bandwidth.

Some features that Outlook 2007 no longer handles properly are:

Background colors Adding a background color can help a designer separate one part of an e-mail from another, making it far more readable. But Outlook 2007 now lacks the ability to display background colors when one element of a message is nested within another.

Positioning It's a simple matter to place one element of a message to the left or right of another using standard styles. But Outlook 2007 seems ignorant of such positioning, displaying such a message as a jumbled mess.

Spacing Restricted to the capabilities of its Word back end, Outlook 2007 has even lost support for such elementary aspects of a message as the margin and padding around text and other objects.

What Microsoft Says About the Problem

Molly Holzschlag, group lead for the Web Standards Project, writes in her blog that Microsoft wanted to use the same back end to display e-mails as it uses to create e-mails. For years, various versions of Outlook have used the MS Word word processor to compose messages. Since Word wasn't very good at creating standard HTML code, such messages often looked different to recipients when rendered by Outlook using IE.

Unfortunately, Microsoft chose to "dumb down" Outlook 2007's rendering to that of MS Word rather than bringing Word's capabilities up to the level of IE.

Microsoft has posted an explanation of the HTML standards that Word 2007 -- and now Outlook 2007 -- will not support. The Redmond company also offers a free, downloadable validator that attempts to alert you to features of your e-mail messages that Outlook 2007 will no longer understand.

As far as I can tell, Microsoft didn't switch from its IE rendering engine to the one in Word because of any security concerns. Most PC users know that previous versions of Outlook are notorious for executing e-mail viruses distributed by black-hat hackers.

But these kinds of security risks mainly existed because Outlook 2000 and previous versions opened messages in IE's "trusted zone," where they could run amok. That was corrected in Outlook 2000 by an e-mail attachment security update that Microsoft released in 2001. And every succeeding version of Outlook opens e-mails by default in the "restricted zone," where they can do much less damage.

No, the failings of Outlook 2007 are simply due to a decision by Microsoft developers to make life a little easier on themselves by using the same engine to display messages that Outlook 2007 uses to create them.

How to Work Around Outlook 2007's Weakness

Michelle Eichner, vice president of client services for Pivotal Veracity, says, "There is no option to change Outlook 2007" from Word's rendering engine to IE's. "There are always going to be things that Word will not render as well as IE."

That doesn't mean that Word can't be improved, however. Companies that rely on e-mail to communicate with their customers can make it clear to Microsoft that Word's lack of support for Web standards is one more thing that the software giant needs to patch.

Until that time, e-mail creators must work around Outlook 2007 by simplifying their messages, using only those basic techniques that the new e-mail program actually does understand. Since approximately 75 percent of e-mail recipients use some version of Outlook or Outlook Express -- and Outlook 2007 is expected to soon become a large fraction of this user base -- Microsoft once again provides us with a definition of "lowest common denominator."

Pivotal Veracity's 43-page PowerPoint presentation can help companies understand what works and doesn't work in Outlook 2007. To get your copy, visit the company's special reports page. Free e-mail registration is required; the report is sent to the e-mail address you provide. Pivotal Veracity is a reputable firm and says that it won't give out or make any other use of your e-mail address, unless you specifically request contact. In my opinion, this is a report you should take a look at.

Executive Tech Goes on Hiatus

This is the last Executive Tech column that I'll be writing for the indefinite future. The recent merger of my e-mail publication, the Windows Secrets Newsletter, with Fred Langa's LangaList, and its switch from a twice-monthly to a weekly schedule, has left me with too little time to do all the things I formerly juggled.

I very much appreciate the support I've enjoyed since the beginning of this column in 2003 from everyone at Datamation and its parent, Jupitermedia. And I'm grateful to my many readers, who've sent me tips and encouragement over the years. Thanks for peeking behind the curtain of technology with me.






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