Microsoft rebuffs Twitter protest over Outlook's rendering of HTML e-mails

Is Microsoft ignoring standards, or better serving its core corporate worker audience?

Showing again the power of Twitter for quick social organizing, Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday was forced to defend itself against complaints that its market-leading Outlook e-mail program wreaks havoc on rich-HTML e-mails.

Outlook 2007 and the upcoming Outlook 2010's use of Microsoft Word to display rich HTML content is to blame, according to blog posts by Dave Greiner, the Sydney, Australia-based organizer of the protest.

Greiner, whose firm sells e-mail marketing software called Campaign Monitor, argues that Word's poor display of HTML code results in garbled layouts.

Greiner posted online how Outlook 2000 and 2010 display the same image-laden e-mail in a side-by-side comparison.

Though a slighty esoteric tech issue that most directly affects e-mail publishers and advertisers, it was seized upon by outraged Twitter users, no doubt for its similarity to Microsoft's long reluctance to have Internet Explorer follow accepted and de facto standards on displaying Web pages, something that Microsoft said would change last year.

Greiner's Web site, Fixoutlook.org, was mentioned by about 20,000 tweets by the late afternoon U.S. east coast time, less than 24 hours after it was launched.

That allowed the issue to overtake tweets about Transformers 2 starlet Megan Fox, and catching up to those about Iran's controversial presidential election.

Outlook 2000 used Internet Explorer to display HTML, which Greiner would like to see Outlook 2007 return to, or have Word made compliant with what Greiner says are existing HTML standards.

Microsoft defended itself in a blog entry posted on Wednesday afternoon.

Microsoft corporate vice-president for Office communications and forms, William Kennedy, confirmed that Microsoft plans to continue using Word as its HTML rendering engine in Outlook 2010.

But Kennedy disagreed that Word was not up to the task, saying it "has always done a great job of displaying the HTML which is commonly found in e-mails around the world."

Word is also more secure against phishing and virus attacks sent via HTML e-mail, he said, because "Word cannot run Web script or other active content that may threaten the security and safety of our customers."

Outlook isn't the only e-mail program Greiner criticizes for going against accepted HTML standards.

Google's Gmail, IBM's Lotus Notes 8 and Windows Live Hotmail , Microsoft's consumer Web mail service, all display HTML e-mails poorly, Greiner said.

A Google spokeswoman said in an e-mail that "[Google is] always looking to improve the way Gmail works, but we don't have anything new to announce regarding HTML support." IBM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Greiner said he is singling out Outlook because of its No. 1 position in the market. "If Microsoft can shift to a standards-based approach for Outlook 2010, you'll see a lot more pressure on other e-mail clients to follow suit," he wrote yesterday (Australia time).

Kennedy gave no indication that Microsoft would make any changes.

He said Microsoft's determination to use Word is driven by the need to serve Outlook's primary customers: corporate workers.

Using Word to display rich e-mails in Outlook ensures that presentations, tables and charts created in Word by businesspeople will display properly when they are sent to co-workers using Outlook for e-mail, he said.

Designers concerned about ensuring their rich e-mails are displayed properly in Word and Outlook, said Kennedy, can refer guidelines published by Microsoft, Kennedy said.

He said that using Word for HTML is not an issue of Microsoft flouting standards.

"There is no widely-recognized consensus in the industry about what subset of HTML is appropriate for use in e-mail for interoperability," he said.

"The 'Email Standards Project' does not represent a sanctioned standard or an industry consensus in this area. Should such a consensus arise, we will of course work with other e-mail vendors to provide rich support in our products," he said.

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