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Outlook's HTML Switcheroo

Outlook 2007 will now call the HTML rendering engine used by Microsoft Word.

Microsoft surprised industry watchers when it announced that the Outlook 2007 e-mail client would no longer use the HTML rendering engine in Internet Explorer to display HTML e-mails. Instead, Outlook will call the HTML rendering engine used by Microsoft Word.

"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. While IE7 is great, it was never intended to be an editing tool," explains Microsoft spokesperson Ana Tackett. "That's why we made the decision to use Word's new HTML rendering engine for both reading and authoring content, which had been improved based on HTML and CSS standards. This allowed us to unify the rendering and editing engines together, rather than forcing customers using Outlook to use two different rendering engines."

Can of Worms
One problem is that the Word rendering engine doesn't seem to faithfully reproduce CSS-based formatting. Likewise, users are finding that things like page background images are lost when rendered with the Word 2007 engine. The move has befuddled business users who rely on HTML e-mail for communications.

"That's really distressing. It's sort of a head scratcher," says Nate Orshan, marketing lead for Bock Interactive Inc., a Web retailing consultancy in Burlington, Vt.

The problem hasn't gone unnoticed with Redmond Developer News readers. "The only part of this move that makes sense is [Microsoft's] attempt to consolidate the Microsoft Office suite and provide as much cross-functionality within the suite as possible," says Mohammed Owais, head of research and development for The Hiring Solutions Co. "But I don't think [Microsoft realizes] that [the company's] opening a can of worms with this move."

Simple Is Better
For firms producing HTML e-mails, the change means companies may have to redesign HTML e-mail templates to ensure they reproduce faithfully on current and past versions of Outlook. Doing so may require stepping back from style sheet formatting -- unless something changes to bring the Word rendering engine in line with that of Internet Explorer and competing Web browsers.

"The Word team is continually examining HTML and CSS support based on customer feedback," says Tackett.

In the meantime, Orshan recommends that companies simplify their layouts. "We encourage clients not to get too complex with HTML," Orshan says. "The simpler the better. We still use old-school tabular formatting."

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.

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