File Under: Software & Tools

Outlook 2007 Adopts MS Word Rendering Engine

Office2007_1As the public release of Vista and Office 2007 draw near, more details about the new software is emerging. One such detail that has sparked some controversy involves Outlook 2007 which no longer uses Internet Explorer as an HTML rendering engine and instead relies on the one in Word 2007.

There was much uproar in certain quarters as Word’s rendering engine has historically been sub-standard. Considering that a number of popular authoring tools, such as Adobe’s Dreamweaver, ship with special tools whose sole purpose is to clean up the often bloated, non-standards-based output of MS Word’s HTML engine, using that engine for Outlook might seem like an odd choice.

Rumors have swirled about as to the reasoning behind the switch so to put matters to rest I got in touch with Jessica Arnold, Product Manager for Microsoft Office Outlook 2007.

It turns out that even older versions of Outlook use the Word rendering engine for creating HTML emails so there’s no real change on the authoring end. The switch to using Word for received emails comes because, according to Arnold, “a big thing we heard from customers is that they wanted the richness of the editing experience they were used to from Word integrated throughout Outlook.”

The problem, she went on to say, was that “often the content people created looked different to the recipient receiving it — the formatting would be slightly off, or things wouldn’t appear as they had when the message was in ‘compose’ mode.”

The desire for consistency appears to be the main motivation, but Arnold did admit that “for some particular users this may not be true and we’re always looking for ways to improve our rendering support in the future.”

For a full rundown on what HTML is available via the Word rendering engine there are two pages worth of specs on Microsoft’s website. There’s also a white paper on what’s new in Outlook 2007. Microsoft has a code validator (Windows only) for those looking to create Outlook 2007 compatible emails using other authoring tools.

Perhaps the most annoying thing for users looking to deliver HTML email newsletters and the like is a lack of support for CSS positioning with div tags and the lack of support for the CSS float property. Without these tools it will be difficult, if not impossible, to design standards compliant HTML emails.

Arnold says “customers using Outlook don’t just want to display HTML content, the way they do in their browser, but also have an expectation that they should be able to author that content as well.” Arnold claims “Word’s new HTML rendering engine has been improved based on HTML and CSS standards,” but did not provide any specifics.

However given that many popular mail clients and services have HTML rendering disabled by default (GMail for instance), and many users consider HTML email a nuisance, perhaps the outcry is misplaced. It’s possible that only people really effected by this will be spammers who rely on embedded images to verify when email was viewed.

Unfortunately Microsoft’s change of rendering engine doesn’t appear to have been motivated by a desire to fight spam or enhance security, while background images are not supported, images nested in tables are, which means spammers can still get information sent back when Outlook renders the HTML content.

If your business relies on HTML email, you’ll definitely want to revise your code come January 30th when the new versions of Vista and Office hit the shelves. Until then you might try contacting Microsoft, Arnold says “the Word team is continually examining HTML and CSS support based on customer feedback.”