(disclaimer - I've already tried asking this on StackOverflow, but apparently it was off topic. If the same is true here please let me know and I'll close/delete this question.)

I've spent about a day putting together a frustrating email newsletter, using tables, inline styles etc. It feels a lot harder than it should be.

I was just wondering, is there any reason why email clients have such poor support of HTML and CSS (CSS in particular)? I would have imagined they'd be scrambling to outdo each other in this department ...

Is is a security thing (I can't really imagine why)? Or are they just lazy?


The short answer is that email client developers don't have a strong business case to support web standards in their products. Their products are designed and sold as plain text or rich text person-to-person communication tools, not as mass-marketed HTML intrays.

The original web standards movement

The longer answer is that it took a huge effort from some very determined people to get browser makers to support the same technologies and conventions in their web browsers. You can read about the history of the web standards movement here.

The email standards movement

There have been similar efforts to get email client makers to adopt web standards, notably the Email Standards Project started by Campaign Monitor. They developed the email ACID test to test email client support of HTML and CSS features, and they publish a list of email clients including support levels.

Email client developer reactions

The Email Standards Project were very active for a time, launching fun campaigns like Fix Outlook and the Gmail Grimace, and even getting the attention of the Outlook team at Microsoft, who hung a "fix Outlook" poster on their office wall.

What's the business case for web standards support?

For email client developers, there does not appear to be an obvious business case to support web standards. Their applications are generally used for rich text emails; advanced HTML support isn't essential for day-to-day business communication, even though marketing companies and web designers would like to think it is. Web-based email clients such as Gmail and Hotmail, and aging clients such as Lotus Notes 8 and Outlook 2007 are unlikely to improve in the immediate future.

It's still worth putting pressure on email client developers, though, and you can help them spread the word here.

  • If the push is always to go forward in HTML/CSS support then why did Microsoft actively take a step backwards when they adopted the MS Word rendering engine for Outlook 2007 (and 2010)? – MrWhite Oct 26 '12 at 11:29
  • @w3d Probably because Outlook uses the MS Word rendering engine to create emails, so they thought it would be easier for their team to use the same engine to render them. They seem quite happy to sacrifice web developer productivity to gain productivity as email client developers. Their core users – the people they are selling the product to – are likely to care little about standards support. Even though their decision is irresponsible, I can see why they went that route. – Nick Oct 26 '12 at 11:39

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