Does Microsoft Outlook 2010 Use Microsoft Word 2010 to Render HTML Messages?

Answer?  Of course it does.  So did Outlook 2007.

In late June 2009 a Twitter storm errupted because it was "revealed" (I put that in quotes because it was never CONcealed) that Outlook 2010 was going to use Microsoft Word to render (essentially view or display) HTML e-mail messages.  This didn't really surprise people familiar with Outlook because Outlook 2007 did the exact same thing.  However, there was a lot of concern (even outrage) expressed by people who felt that Microsoft was breaking some sort of standard by doing this.  So let's take a quick look at that...

Web Standards for E-mail

Put simply...there aren't any.  Every e-mail client supports HTML mail (or doesn't!) in its own way.  Now since HTML itself is a standard each of those clients support it in very similar ways but there isn't an official standard or industry-wide consensus on what HTML features need to be included in an e-mail client.  Things like CSS or Flash and active content.  Some support it, some don't.

Some might argue that HTML e-mail should support ALL of the HTML standards, but to me that sounds like overkill.  There are a lot of things you can do in a web page that I don't need (or even want) to be able to do in e-mail.  Embedded video for example - I don't want to open an e-mail message and have just start blasting video at me. If I want to see the video, I'll click a link to open it in my browser, thanks very much.

Word's HTML rendering supports nearly all of the basic HTML that most users want or need.  Colors, fonts, images, tables, even embedded charts and graphs.

Security

One of the biggest concerns when you talk about Web and e-mail is around security.  Are users vulnerable to malicious content?  There was a time when people were told to turn off the Reading Pane because of fears that malicious web content could activate in the Reading Pane and infect the computer.  That's one problem that is made a lot simpler with Word - it doesn't run web scripts or ActiveX or much other active content like that. 

NOTE: It also doesn't run animated GIFs, which is one of the popular complaints that home users have. They want to decorate their e-mails with cutesy dancing cats and such and Word just won't render them.  In fairness I find those things pretty annoying generally, so you can understand if I'm not that sympathetic to their plight.

The FixOutlook folks hold up a sample of an HTML message in Outlook 2000 and in Outlook 2010 as evidence that the rendering has gotten worse.  Arguably that's true, but the SECURITY has gotten a lot better.  And if I have to sacrifice a bit of formatting to be a lot more secure I think I'm willing to make that trade-off.  Especially since there is an easy solution (keep reading)...

But What About Formatting?

It is true that some HTML content just isn't going to format as well using Word to render it instead of a browser like IE.  You lose some support for background images, advanced CSS formatting, Flash and things like that.  If you publish an eNewsletter then you might have to take that into consideration before you send it - you may have to work around some of those formatting limitations or find another solution.

If you're interested in doing some advanced HTML in Outlook here's an article at MSDN that you might find useful: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/aa338201.aspx

The crux of the complaints from the FixOutlook crew, however, at least the knowledgeable ones seems to center around Word's lack of support for CSS.  In this regard, at least, their complaints are not unreasonable.

So What IS CSS Anyway?

CSS stands for "Cascading Style Sheets" and it's a language used to describe the way a document looks. Put simply it lets you separate what a document says (the text) from how it looks (the fonts, colors, layout, etc.).  It's used by web developers to create very nicely laid out web documents.

In e-mail it's almost exclusively the province of e-mail marketers, eNewsletter publishers and some web apps.  It's virtually never used by average users to create regular e-mails.

For all of the hand-wringing about the way Outlook does (or doesn't) support CSS by the way it's worth noting that not all web browsers support CSS in the same way and that Google's mail application "GMail" has very poor CSS support of it's own. That little tidbit is rarely mentioned (or known, I suspect) by most of those participating in the "FixOutlook" hysteria.

If you want to know more about CSS here are some resources:

But I NEED to See My HTML the Way it Was Intended!

Fair enough, here's a quick workaround.  Open the e-mail message in Outlook.   If it doesn't look right then click the Other Actions button on the toolbar, and choose "View in Browser".  Internet Explorer will open and display the message with all of the rendering capabilities of the full browser client.

If you find yourself doing that often and want to cut the process to a single click you can add the "View in Browser" function to the QAT in Outlook.  Just open a message, click the "down arrow" next to the Quick Access Toolbar (at the top, next to the Office Button) and choose "More commands". Quick Access Toolbar (QAT)Change the list on the left from "Popular Commands" to "All Commands" and scroll down until you find "View in Browser".  Add it.  It doesn't have an icon so it will get the default "Green Sphere" button like you see at the left.

In Outlook 2010 you'll find it generally above the Home tab on the Ribbon.

Now anytime you open an HTML message and it doesn't seem to render quite right, just click the green sphere and it will open in your browser?

Great solution?  Maybe not, but it's not too painful and lets you have the benefits of a more stable and secure e-mail rendering engine with the ability to selectively and quickly view a trusted HTML message in a full-featured rendering engine.

So What Does All That Mean?

To the average user, and especially the average law firm user, it doesn't mean much of anything. The majority of HTML e-mails don't have those kinds of features in them and will be rendered just fine. Most of the fancy HTML that will be affected is going to appear in newsletters and advertisements.  The HTML messages you share with colleagues and clients really wouldn't use any of the features that Word has trouble with anyhow.  I send and receive HTML e-mail by the dozens (hundreds perhaps) every single day and I rarely run into any serious rendering problems.

Now that's not to say that there are no valid complaints here. Web developers and e-mail marketers have some serious concerns with the limitations of how the rendering engine will display their material. But I have to be honest, I'm just not all that upset if the next Viagra ad in my spam folder shows it's text in a single column instead of two columns.

In my opinion this is all much ado about nothing. The main people who SHOULD be upset are e-mail marketers and folks who just can't live without animated dancing turtles in their e-mail.

The FixOutlook Protest *OPINION*

Let me start my saying this bit is just my personal opinion and comes from having spent the day reading these FixOutlook retweets.  I don't think that most of the people doing the retweeting really understand what the issues are. Microsoft is, to some extent, "The Borg" to a lot of people and they will seize on any opportunity to criticize it, even if they don't really know what they're criticizing. Also there are a lot of average users who start to panic when they hear that their e-mail might be "broken" and start to hyperventilate.

Here's a good example of what I'm talking about (name omitted to protect the ignorant):

Have no clue what is actually happening for Outlook 2010 but apparently it is 'not good' #Outlook 2010
Wed, Jun 24 03:20:31

This user openly admits that she "has no clue" and yet is jumping on the bandwagon of criticizing Outlook 2010.

A lot of what I've seen on Twitter today has been hysteria about how Outlook 2010 is going to break e-mail.  Nonsense.  Outlook 2010 is no worse than Outlook 2007 was in that regard. If you got your HTML e-mail o.k. in Outlook 2007 yesterday you'll get it just fine in Outlook 2010 tomorrow.  This problem is NOT new. Word has been used as the rendering engine for mail in Outlook for over THREE YEARS.  The sky is not falling.  Please return to your homes and churches.

More Information

It *IS*, however, a valuable discussion to have. So let's have an INFORMED discussion.  Here are a few more resources that you may find interesting or helpful in educating yourself on the issue.