Ben Ward

Microsoft are full of shit

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Word has always done a great job of displaying the HTML which is commonly found in e-mails around the world. We have always made information available about what HTML we support in Outlook. For e-mail viewing, Word also provides security benefits that are not available in a browser: Word cannot run web script or other active content that may threaten the security and safety of our customers.

So, look. This whole Fix Outlook campaign. It's not something I feel super-strongly about. I disable HTML email in my client, I only send plain-text email… this isn't really my fight.

But, Microsoft's response to the campaign is just crazy-nuts jackassery of the highest order, and I can't stand for it.

For starters, (seriously, in the first paragraph) it tries to dismiss the Email Standards Project for being run by Campaign Monitor. It even describes Freshview as running “email marketing campaigns” in quotes, a tactic shared with last week's bullshitter extraordinaire. On this occasion, they'd like to make you think of a spamming operation; some group of evil spammers want to influence how you see your email! Which is especially disingenuous since Campaign Monitor go to great lengths to both enforce good practice sending mail, and educate their users about bad, spammy practice. That is a horrendous smear from the outset. Therefore, fuck you, Microsoft. Fuck you.

Now, whether you disagree with HTML-in-email or not, the Email Standards Project pushes the application of pre-existing web standards, namely HTML and CSS. Not something of their own invention. So please understand that William Kennedy, Corporate Vice President of the Office Communications and Forms Team is dismissing regular, accepted web standards that other parts of his own company support.

The entire post is full of cringe-worthy, are-you-serious passages and you should aim to find pleasure in reading it. I particular enjoyed hearing about the virtues of something called “SmartArt”. It's a great benefit of authoring email in Microsoft Word, apparently.

And then. And then and then. We have the quote I featured above:

Word has always done a great job of displaying the HTML which is commonly found in e-mails around the world.

I've tried to write different responses to this first sentence. Different witty re-workings run through my head, and some of them are quite good. Yet, every time I touch the keys, all I can write is “Fuck you”.

So, look. We went through all of this in 2007, the last time Outlook got ‘updated’. That's when the whole Word-rendering-email problem actually got introduced; they stopped using the Internet Explorer 7 engine for displaying email, because it didn't match what the HTML email users wrote in Word looked like (two CSS renderers, neither of which supported the standards correctly… go figure). The origin of the problem is that the Word-powered Outlook 2007 did not render all the email being sent in 2007. Especially not the very well made, cleanly marked-up, CSS-based templates that Campaign Monitor take a lot of pride in promoting.

But of course now, a few years on, now that everyone has had to support the crippled 2007 edition anyway, it's probably true that Word does render all HTML email. But only because they forced everyone down to their level last time around.

To respond in complete, absolute terms: Microsoft Word's HTML rendering and creation capabilities are shit. Word was built for producing Microsoft's bespoke, proprietary document format, and everything on top of that is a bizarre kludge. Word is so far from valid HTML (in both spirit and specification) that an industry with a stronger culture of accreditation would not grant it the time of day, let alone a badge.

For e-mail viewing, Word also provides security benefits that are not available in a browser: Word cannot run web script or other active content that may threaten the security and safety of our customers.

As a Microsoft vice-president, I'm sure Mr Kennedy is extremely aware of how insecure web browsers can be.

At this point, we have crossed from ‘disingenuous half-truths’ into full on deception.

Mr Kennedy, despite Outlook being his trade, is apparently completely unaware of how email clients work. Like, how every other email client works. That, to secure your customers from people sneaking nasty little JavaScriptsesss into their messages you don't have to regress to using a rendering engine so retarded as to predate scripting, but you can actually include a shiny modern rendering engine and (in your developer tool) just click the check box that says “fucking disable fucking JavaScript”. It's right there in the preferences.

It's probably important for a VP to understand something about his competition, so for his benefit: Mozilla Thunderbird renders HTML using Gecko, the HTML rendering engine that powers a browser called Firefox. Thunderbird operates securely by choosing not to execute JavaScript in email. Mac OSX Mail renders HTML using WebKit. This HTML rendering engine also powers Safari, Google Chrome, and the iPhone.

Please, Mr Kennedy, how come my Mac isn't a mange-ridden whore-house of cross-site-email-virus sluttery? Because mail clients use regular, modern rendering engines but do not execute JavaScript. You dick.

Windows Mail renders HTML using Trident, the rendering engine used by a browser called “Microsoft Internet Explorer”… wait, what?

Yes, the capable little freebie mail client that replaced Outlook Express in Windows Vista has superior email rendering capabilities to… Outlook. Perhaps Mr Kennedy should offer that team some advice on making sure that scary emails don't “threaten the security and safety” of their customers.

He goes on to say that “There is no widely-recognized consensus in the industry about what subset of HTML is appropriate for use in e-mail for interoperability” — this is presented in bold using a <b> element, but we'll assume he intended <strong>.

Here's an idea: You refer to this monstrosity as ‘HTML email’. How about about you stop the damage right there, and you just support HTML? It's even written down.

Of course, underlying all of this, he is deliberately conflating the issue of rendering mail from other sources in Outlook, with writing mail in Outlook using Word. No-one cares about the latter.

I'm angry about this not because I want HTML and CSS in my email. I really, really don't. But this effort has been organised by people who work bloody hard at what they do, and have made great effort to ask for things which are compliant with existing standards. Plus, by shifting email presentation into CSS, just as with web sites, it does make life better for everyone by getting presentational cruft and <table> elements out of email content. HTML email won't go away, so we might as well have it suck less.

To see Microsoft ignore their campaign was my expectation. To see Microsoft instead respond with a vicious, vindictive and lies-filled post is outrageous.

Just to be clear, since I've praised them and used them as references a couple of times here: I have used Campaign Monitor's software on a handful of occasions, and found it to be excellent at what it does. Mostly though I have a great deal of respect for the thoroughness and effort that has gone into their documentation of email-related issues including client support of CSS, and strict good practices. They are a company most undeserving of ‘spam’ connotations.

Source: Microsoft Office Outlook Team Blog: The Power of Word in Outlook Via: blogs.msdn.com.

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