As you may or may not know, writing HTML for email is a special kind of bizarre. Most of the email clients we use on our computers are firmly and staunchly set with both feet in the last century, but our phones are using blazing-fast, standards-compliant browsers to render emails. So when writing an HTML email, you have to somehow make it simultaneously zippy-pretty on a stone age Microsoft Word HTML renderer and rock-solid on a space age Apple Safari HTML renderer. This leaves you with one real option: abandon your <div>s and <span>s in favor of tables, an HTML development technique that went out of style on the web when Internet Explorer 5 came out. In the year 2000.
Plus you have to throw in such insanity as a Gmail that likes to remove (or ignore, the verdict is still out) your HTML headers. This means that the typical responsive tactic of creating CSS breakpoints won’t work in Gmail. Yahoo Mail also does weird things with CSS, ignoring media queries unless the designer uses an archaic selector in their CSS to make it work.
You know, two of the most popular web-based email services. No big.
And then there’s Outlook, which has the most bizarre problem (in my opinion): its older versions are actually more standards compliant than its newer versions. That’s because, in 2007, Outlook stopped using Internet Explorer to render its emails (which, of course had its own set of problems) and began using Microsoft Word to do it instead. A word processor.
This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.
Microsoft has defended their decision as being more secure (debatable) and easier to use (also debatable). Basically, it let them make it look flashier without actually expending any effort in the ordeal.
Anyway, all of this underscores one major point: there is no set of established standards for HTML email. And this is a problem.
HTML for the web, for instance, is governed by the W3C (The World Wide Web Consortium) and the WHATWG (Web Hypertext Application Technologies Working Group), who make a public specification document which browser manufacturers (for the most part) do their best to follow. HTML5 adoption, for example, is almost universal after only two years in the wild; most features were even adopted before the spec was finalized.
CSS is also operated by the W3C. The latest version of most modules (CSS3) is, again, quite nearly universal, and in fact forms the backbone of responsive web pages and email through media queries.
But HTML email?
(You can’t hear them, but those are crickets.)
An attempt has been made to form an Email Standards Project to govern the development of HTML email, but its website hasn’t been updated in nearly five years. And it’s unlikely to pick up any more steam; developers are a niche enough community to begin with, but HTML Email developers? Forget it. At best we’re considered practitioners of a dying art; at worst, we’re called spammers.
We’re not spammers, but I’ll take that “last practitioner of a dying art” thing. That means we can be in the same company as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Superman.