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Email standards march onward!

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Email Standards Project - Gmail Appeal screen shot

It seems that kicking up a fuss works. Recently we wrote about the Email Standards Project attempts to attract some attention from the Gmail development team, in an effort to encourage them to support email standards. This was called Project Gmail Grimace, and it resulted in a video called the 2008 Gmail Appeal, featuring the pained faces of dozens of frustrated web designers.

This approach has worked, and the Email Standards Project have been contacted by a member of the Gmail team who has offered to begin working on implementing the suggested standards. So it looks like the best route to go is to speak in a language the recipient will understand. In the case of Google, they understood a smart video, modelled on their own Gmail video offerings.

Whilst we’ll have to wait and see if any concrete improvements come as a result of this, it looks as though it is time to move on to another target.

So, what next?

Microsoft Outlook 2007

The next natural target in my mind, has to be Outlook 2007, which has some serious issues with rendering a standards based HTML email. It’s missing support for some basic properties and at a minimum the Email Standards Project is suggesting that they improve support for:

  • background-image,
  • background-position,
  • float/clear,
  • margin,
  • padding,
  • width/height.

So why do we suggest a focus on Outlook 2007? What about Outlook Express and Windows Mail? Windows Mail, Vista’s inbuilt successor to Outlook Express, is doing great on the standards front, so no need to worry there. Outlook Express? Well, whilst I’m sure it’s used extensively, it might be difficult to get Microsoft to invest development time back into a product which is on the way out.

Outlook 2007, on the other hand, must have a huge user base, given the extensive market penetration of Microsoft Office, especially in the business sector, and if this mail client was to support standards, the email designer’s worries would be substantially lessened.

If the next focus is indeed to be Outlook 2007, how does one go about attracting the giant’s attention?

Look here Microsoft

If we look at Microsoft’s work on the upcoming version of Internet Explorer, IE8, we might see a clue as to what they understand. IE8 heralds a version of Internet Explorer which finally offers solid support for web standards, and this means that it is now catching up with Firefox, Safari, Opera and others. There are a few potential factors that brought around this change, included pressure from the developer community, their own interoperability principles, or possibly the threat of another anti-trust suit from the European Courts. We wrote about this in more detail a little while ago, and looking at the background to the improvements in IE8 it seems that there are two routes to go.

  1. Appeal to their developers by focussing on Microsoft’s new “Interoperability Principles”.
  2. Go to the European court, like Opera did, and echo their statement that “Microsoft’s unilateral control over standards in some markets creates a de facto standard that is more costly to support, harder to maintain, and technologically inferior and that can even expose users to security risks”.

There’s been a lot of talk about anti-trust cases when it comes to the web browser, but I don’t think I’ve heard so much when it comes to email clients. Still, in regard to point 2, there is a bit of a difference between applying the same rule of thumb to Outlook 2007. The principles of Opera’s claim were based on the fact that IE is bundled with Windows, and if we were looking to chase Outlook Express or Windows Mail, then this approach might hold some weight. However, Outlook 2007 is in it’s own little world, a user pays for the pleasure of Outlook 2007.

Can standards be brought to Microsoft’s flagship mail client?

Should we be appealing nicely to them? Begin a petition to support the cause? Is there any point in following these routes when maybe the only thing they will understand is the threat of their dollars being at risk?

I’m not sure what the answer is going to be. A dollar-threatening route is extremely complicated and involves a costly, time-consuming, and hugely confusing legal process, and it doesn’t strike me as the kind of approach that befits the Email Standards Project. It’s all about creating an open forum and trying to improve things. Perhaps it’s simpler to appeal to their developers first.

Perhaps we should kidnap a copy of MS Outlook 2007 and hold it for ransom, making a public deal out of the whole thing? Throw enough press behind something and people take notice – “Microsoft Outlook held for ransom by crazed web designer!” and so on… let Microsoft see it as an opportunity for some free PR.

If anyone has any suggestions, leave a comment below, or get in contact with the Email Standards Project by emailing [email protected]. Most importantly, if you are involved in the development of Microsoft’s Outlook 2007, or are acquainted with someone that is, do drop a line to the email address just mentioned.

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