How is it that Microsoft manages to land itself in the middle of so many controversies? Or perhaps a better question is, why is it that so many people get so worked up about what Microsoft does? The latest mini-firestorm I've been following is the brouhaha over the Office team's announcement that Microsoft Office Outlook 2010 will use Word 2010 for its HTML authoring and rendering engine.
This situation goes back to Outlook 2007, which first used Word 2007 for HTML rendering. Last week, the Email Standards Project (ESP) launched a campaign on Twitter to give Microsoft feedback about this decision; you can find information about the campaign at fixoutlook.org. ESP's basic position is that Outlook's HTML rendering should be based on industry-accepted standards, to which Word apparently doesn't comply. In a week, the campaign has over 24,000 retweets from users supporting ESP's position.
William Kennedy of the Office Communications and Forms Team at Microsoft posted a blog in response, explaining that this decision was based on providing users with tools for composing email messages that they were already familiar with from Word. Kennedy states, in bold text, "There is no widely-recognized consensus in the industry about what subset of HTML is appropriate for use in e-mail for interoperability." And furthermore, he points out that ESP is backed by a company that makes email marketing software; the unstated implication is that the ESP project is intended to aid advertisers and marketers as opposed to typical business users.
OK, so here's where the real fun begins as the Internet community jumps in with a fervor like mad dogs fighting in a back alley.
Supporting ESP's position for changing Outlook's HTML rendering engine you'll find a large body of developers—you know, those people most affected by Outlook's poor HTML handling. These are the folks who have to design HTML email campaigns that look acceptable in Outlook 2007, which generally means not taking advantage of design features and principles that other email clients would allow, such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). It's the lowest-common-denominator factor: Because Outlook is the dominant email client, all email messages must conform to Outlook's rendering.
The bottom line for the developer crowd seems to be that Microsoft is callous, evil, and destined to destroy itself (and possibly the world) because it isn't interested in standards. Naturally, at the lunatic fringe of the discussion, you'll find plenty of conspiracy talk—Microsoft's just trying to control (the Internet/the user community/your wallet)—mixed with a healthy dose of general Microsoft-bashing. Nonetheless, somewhere in there are some reasonable calls to separate Outlook's HTML authoring and rendering—that is, use Word for authoring if that makes it easier for users to compose HTML email messages, but use a more widely accepted rendering engine, such as what Internet Explorer uses, to display such messages.
On the other side of the equation, you'll find the people who aren't the least concerned with Word's inability to render those beautifully created HTML messages because, after all, who sends that type of message except for marketers, and everyone knows that marketing is a tool of the devil. I would also lump into this camp those who are opposed to HTML email based on security or bandwidth issues and believe that email should remain the domain of plain text—and I'll confess I'm surprised to find how many people out there seem to be of this mindset.
I can't imagine ever needing CSS or advanced layout features to compose an email message. However, for email newsletters that I choose to subscribe to, yes, for me presentation matters. I like a sharp, well-designed page and don't necessarily want to go to a website to see it that way. But I'm not reading my email on a mobile device, either.
But HTML isn't just about fancy formatting. Do you want to put a simple image in a message, rather than adding it as an attachment—say, a corporate logo in your email signature? Woops, can't do that without HTML. And have you noticed how plain plain text actually is? That's right, no italics, bold, or highlighting. I'm sure most people don't worry about these things when they dash off an email message—particularly if they're already fluent in the even more primitive formatting of text messaging. And I'm also sure that most people who do use these formatting controls in Outlook don't realize they're calling on HTML to get the job done.
I'm not saying that Microsoft has made the right choice to use Word for Outlook's HTML engine. I don't know enough about HTML standards to judge one way or the other. The issue as I see it is whether the feedback generated by the Twitter campaign is actually representative of Outlook users as a whole. As one reader of the ESP blog commented, "20,000 people is barely a drop in the ocean as far as users of Outlook are concerned. They \[Microsoft\] probably get more complaints about the colour of the title bar than that." An exaggeration, but you get the point.
So this brings me back to my initial question: How does Microsoft end up being the punching bag so often? If the company is truly seeking customer input on product development, as it continues to claim, how do its product teams end up making decisions that anger and frustrate such a large segment of their user base? Or is it really just a vocal minority claiming to have a consensus about issues such as this Outlook HTML problem?
I guess when it comes down to it, my feeling is that with July on us now, it's hot enough out there. No sense getting hot under the collar as well.