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A Case For HTML Email - Mashups

You know, I had this massive post all typed up arguing why HTML email isn't inherently evil. Seriously, it was approaching 2000 words. Then I realized something- I'm over complicating the issue. Everything I was trying to say in the post, can be summed up in this video, showing off Ubiquity from Mozilla Labs. Basically, what you are about to see in a couple examples in the video, you can't do with "plain text" email. This is a video for Ubiquity, which does a lot more, but I think you'll get the idea.

Ubiquity for Firefox from Aza Raskin on Vimeo.

Now, here's the funny thing. For those arguing the case for plain text email- you are explicitly putting yourself in a "plain text world". When someone sends you something, say a mashup of a restaurant review, and you can't view it with mutt, who's problem is that? The sender, or the receiver? Think about that for a second. It's 2009. We should be able to do so much more with email than we're currently doing, as Aza states, but the plain text folks aren't interested in that. "Gimme the text, remove the bloat. The web belongs on the web." they'll say. Well, I guess the world is interested in passing them by.

Full disclosure- I have been a heavy plain text email advocate in the past. Post 0 and post 1 demonstrate that. Let's just say I've had a change of heart. I want to do more with my email. Also, I'll be sending all my emails in both plain text and HTML encoding, for those who insist on living in the past as well as for those who actually want to enjoy their email.

{ 21 } Comments

  1. humbug | October 17, 2009 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    Personally I'd like to remove all that bloat from the web too. CSS is an abomination. So is JavaScript, Flash etc. I care about content only.

    Also, blegh to Vimeo, it isn't viewable with only Free Software installed.

  2. Matt | October 17, 2009 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    You certainly bring up good points, we should be able to do much more with email than just textt. However. I'm still all for plain text emails, for some of the points you brought up in psot 1 for example: everyone can read them (disabilities), and they very much cut to the chase; you get the text of the message, usually the only thing really of interest. Text-based email clients can usually take care of showing html emails just fine, and in the worst of cases you can deal with any embedded element like any other attachment; download, and then view in a program that is meant for that... or just click a link representationto load it in a browser. If nothing else, I like to read my email from a remote system through SSH, which is easier in text-only. Any links I click will obviously open in my local browser.

    Just my 2 cents 🙂

  3. Joseph Hall | October 17, 2009 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Dude, you're the last person I expected to advocate HTML emails. I can't really say I expected embedded flash on any of your posts either, since you're the one that showed me the very flash blocker that I used in Firefox to not have to look at your video.

    Case against HTML email: spammers who embed pixels in their emails that help them validate your email address. I'm not actually one of the "web belongs on the web" people. HTML is a tool, and sure it makes emails look jazzy. If jazzy emails are what you're after, go for it. I'm for informative emails. And it turns out informative emails tend to be pretty easy to filter into plain-text.

  4. paultag | October 17, 2009 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    I agree that email is terribly outdated.


    If an email client was using say, the geko, or webkit engine to render the HTML, we have a good deal of problems.

    It is trivial to write a XSS attack, or exploit the target. But Wait! I have Firefox plugins! Not if it's using the backend it won't.

    Then let's build them in!

    Do we really want our email clients to go the way of our web browsers? Massive, slow, bloated and insecure. Using plugins to patch over the core issues of running untrusted code.

    That being said:

    I do agree we need something to spice up the monotone 1980's esque look of email.

  5. Christer Edwards | October 17, 2009 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I think @paultag has a good security point. There may be something to be said about having all kinds of HTML mashup fanciness in your email, but that could raise a lot of security concerns. The modern browser (which allows a lot of that fanciness) is also loaded with security features. Chrome/Chromium is redesigned with security at its core. Firefox seems to have just as much security-focused code as it does features. We can't say the same thing about any current mail clients. I don't think a lot of attention has been paid to this either, and I don't know that it will be considering the state of mail clients these days.

    If you want to use HTML mashups in your email, might want to stick to browser based webmail.

  6. Pavel | October 17, 2009 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Funny - I recently disabled HTML filtering in my Mail client since it is just so much easier to find the confirmation link in a Facebook email when it is bold green and takes up half the space of the screen.
    Furthermore I have now a whitelist for remote content loading, so I can have mashups 🙂

    And after reading your post I also changed the default for outgoing emails to HTML, so I can emphasise my own mails as well.

  7. seif sallam | October 17, 2009 at 8:57 am | Permalink


  8. Aaron | October 17, 2009 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    @humbug- Sounds like a problem with Free Software. I don't have time to "geek it up". I want to get stuff done. Free Software falls short, very short, with flash, but the world is pressing on. I don't have time to wait for it to catch up.

    @Matt- People with disabilities can read HTML mail too. I know a blind person who not only reads HTML emails, but plays World of Warcraft. If your client can't read HTML email, then your client sucks. Get a new client.

    @Joseph Hall- Understood. You're more than welcome to block the flash on my site. You won't hurt my feelings. Further, addressing this argument to yourself, @paultag and @Christer Edwards, security is a moot point. Spammers are using these techniques anyway. They have been for years. Get decent spam filtering. The only argument you would have, is if I started using those techniques- after all, I'm the one sending you the mail. Do you trust me or not?

  9. TheGZeus | October 17, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I don't even like jazzy websites.
    I'm on the web for information because I find information interesting.
    I can't stand stuff like Facebook et al because it's so wonky and overstimulating.
    I read Planet aggregations and several other blogs in emacs-w3m just to avoid junk like that.
    I'm stuck with full-on modern browser engines for 90% of the web, though, so thankfully I've got Conkeror to deal with that...

    "what about a mash-up of a restaraunt menu" I don't even know what that means, but I doubt I'd want it emailed to me.
    It's not that hard to do various formatting that's normally done with html in plain text, just use a good editor and the right mode for the job. Tab indentation is your friend, so are quotes and underscores(parens, pipes, asterisks, greater-than/less-than...).

    Yes, I'm posting this from within emacs.

  10. TheGZeus | October 17, 2009 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    @Aaron- Your replies are growing hostile.
    We don't do what you want to do. We don't have to. You don't have to do what we want to do.
    I didn't know you even _had_ flash on your site, because I want text and text alone when reading a blog.

    Biggest reason: ergonomics.
    The web and desktop has become so much about æsthetics(thank you apple... thank you in the face) over ergonomics I find tons of applications unusable.
    They mouse is a big source of RSI, so is your average keyboard. However, a something that gets ignored alot is the eyes and how most users spend their days staring at a lightbulb with all the black-on-white rather than the uglier, but less straining white-on-black. Font-smoothing of all kinds results in less clear letters, and the average font designed for that doesn't render well without it.
    So I get the choice between being able to easily recognise Japanese/Chinese characters, or being able to look at them all day.
    People have told me not to use Colemak because it's not as widespread, which is a description of its own cause; a recursive situation.
    They've told me that if I get used to my Kinesis I'll have difficulty on other keyboards. Yup, I do; but I'd rather have typing be awkward sometimes than painful all the time.
    Too much compromise, too little choice. Change isn't always for the better, even if it's more fun.

    I'm sick of the æsthetic desktop.
    I want the ergonomic desktop.
    Actually, I have it, but that's not the point...

  11. Aaron | October 17, 2009 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    @TheGZeus- I'm glad you found something that works for you. I'm not telling you to change. You don't like web sites. You don't like images. You're not a fan of flash. Great. Good for you.

    I don't just want to hear your whining if you can't read my mail, because you like living in a world with blinders. You're the one that is refusing to live where the rest of the world. You're like the one trumpet player in a marching band that is stepping left, when everyone is stepping right. Everyone is out of step but you, correct? That's not the world I opt for living in.

    To each their own.

  12. Levi | October 17, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Glad to see that you've come around to my way of thinking. 🙂

  13. Eevee | October 17, 2009 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    "Linux. GNU. Freedom."

    What's the point if we still need to rely on a binary blob for something as trivial as viewing video? And there are in fact perfectly good alternatives, but even the advocates of open source—even people from Mozilla, in fact—can rarely be bothered to use them.

    As for the email, well. I can read HTML email just fine, but I only ever write text email, and I have never once gotten an HTML email that was better for it. I've gotten some newsletters that were purely images in a silly font with no alt text, and I've gotten some bank emails that inexplicably surrounded all their content with their usual site chrome. Nothing has ever blown me away with the amazing progress HTML email represents. If anyone wants to show me something on the Web, s/he will send me a link, whether via email or otherwise. Isn't linking over embedding one of original design goals of the Web?

    It's interesting that you explicitly use Jabber only, which locks you into a world of other people who use Jabber, even though quite a majority uses AIM or MSN instead (depending on region). Are they all out of step, and you not?

    Some people will do things the way they believe things ought to be done, short-term consequences be damed. I don't have Flash installed at all, because I wish Flash were not used in most of the ways it is right now, and the tiny dent in market share is the best way I have to express this. You're getting kinda snippy at other people who're doing similar things, and I'm not sure why. Is it that critically important that you can email me an embedded Google map with an analog clock following my cursor?

  14. Steve | October 17, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Part of me thinks email should be pure text, but then I also think we should have moved beyond that by now. The web is not just pages of information. It contains applications and email should be able to exploit that. I know that opens us up to dangerous exploits, but we need to find ways to avoid that. I've been playing with Wave and it has possibilities as a way to converse with the ability to embed media and applications. It may not be the answer, but it's a possible direction.

    Thanks for reminding me of Ubiquity. I've had it for a while, but not got into the habit of using it. Learning new habits is a whole other problem.

  15. jfindlay | October 17, 2009 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you, atoponce. We become stubborn and disgusted over n00bs who start fooling ignorantly with the latest ideas in and implementations of technology. They disregard OUR inherent dominion over all things technological by virtue of our intrinsic nerdiness. How dare they use technology without our permission?

    Multipart email was invented as a backwards compatibility for people who are too stubborn to use anything else. It used to be a sign of candor and refinement to use plain text, but the more I've thought about it, the more ridiculous it seems. When it comes to technology you can either cling desperately to the old ways or accept that things are not going to evolve according to your permission. Just ask any proprietary software company, they can tell you all about that.

    It's too bad that millions of people jumped onto the intarwebs in the mid 90s and polluted our sanctuaries with their uninitiated pebkac hands. I'm sure we could have educated the public more effectively, but it's too late for that, and it's time to stop thinking backwards.

  16. Stéphan K. | October 17, 2009 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    My issue with HTML e-mail is probably that it all looks ugly, because the common man authors it, and there is not a client that takes the effort to make it easy. What you get is a 90s teenager website (guilty as charged) delivered to your mailbox today.

    I've styled some automated mail with CSS that looked okay to some degree. But I can't figure out how to get an elegant, minimal CSS stylesheet included with my regular hand-written e-mail.

    Perhaps we should be e-mailing in markdown instead?

  17. Jean-Marc Liotier | October 17, 2009 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Why all the bad vibes ? As the saying goes, "be strict in what you send and tolerant in what you receive". I suffer daily people with 30 lines signatures who ignore quoting and use the most horrible Outlook stationery, but I don't complain and keep sending properly quoted messages in a sober attire.

    I enjoy plain text because it is the lowest common denominator that works even on the least functional display across the slowest and lossiest link. And plain text makes proper quoting more coherent across multiple users in a thread. But I silently deal with HTML too - most of the time I'm all tooled up to render it painlessly, even in Mutt.

    Sometimes HTML is painful (horribly slow link or horribly limited display) but such bad conditions are a marginal use-case nowadays.

    I even admit sending HTML mail occasionally - tables are so much easier in HTML than in ASCII artful ways...

  18. Andy | October 17, 2009 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    My main problem with html emails is that they are communicating stuff you (often) don't care about. When I'm sending an email to someone, I don't want to think about what size font it should be, because it isn't something that I care about. And yes, I believe that using the default font is still a choice.

    From a technical perspective, an html formatted email can be much more annoying to quote when replying... this might be fixable, but I haven't seen a client that makes it pleasant to chop up an arbitrary html email into chunks, and type my replies in there and have it obvious which bits are mine.

    There are security implications (if you can send me an embedded map without me explicitly allowing it, then a spammer can also validate my email address), but I suspect that these will be fixed if there is a need, and they aren't the main reason why html isn't always good.

  19. Aigars Mahinovs | October 17, 2009 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    You might as well be attaching MS powerPoint presentations to your emails. With fancy transitions between your words, background music and fancy fonts ... It is the same thing as HTML email, just a bit more non-texty.

    But really KISS applies here heavily - email is grat because the simplicity of text can be rendered on any device - from a computer to a cell phone to a paper printout. Same is the reason Twitter took off - keep it simple, keep it short, keep it very, very portable and mobile.

    Say you write me a super pretty animated email. How would I answer to the point you are making in the middle of it? From my cell phone?

  20. Nemo Inis | October 17, 2009 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    What you describe above is a convenience for the sender, not for the recipient. In other words, you would force me to enable a dangerous technology on my end (receiving HTML emails) so you can have the convenience of creating that mashup easily from within your mailer.
    As a recipient, I care more about my security/efficiency than your convenience. Send me a PDF map attachment, or an image (however you created it), I'd be just as happy.

    You have not made a case for HTML email. Sorry.

  21. Aaron | October 18, 2009 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    I see there are a lot of comments to reply to. Let's get to it, eh? 🙂

    @Eevee- Why bring up "Linux, GNU, Freedom", and point out flash? The GNU project has a flash player that is Free Software called Gnash. I'm not making you use any non-free software. If Gnash can't view the video, you don't have to watch it. The choices you make, aren't my fault.

    In regards to your case about sending links in emails, does this mean I have to use multiple applications to view your email? I have to have what, an email client and a web browser? Sure, I have them both installed, but why not convey that information in the email itself? Why force me to go several places to get out the information you're trying to convey?

    In regard to Jabber, I have only 2 family members who don't have Jabber accounts. EVERYONE important in my life, aside from those two, do. I'm hardly out of step. If I were to switch to MSN, I could talk with the other two family members. I would be alone on Yahoo, AIM or ICQ, and MSN would be incredibly boring with only two contacts. I made a choice long ago to do Jabber-only, and most came to that platform in months, mainly due to getting GMail accounts. I'm not out of step with the rest of the marching band.

    @Steve- Crackers and spammers have been using dangerous exploits in HTML and email for years. It's nothing new. We have great spam filters and virus scanners and such to identify such emails. I want to send HTML email, not because I'm interested in exploiting your email client, but because I want to convey the information in my email differently than plain text. I want to have the power of word processing, which seems natural when writing a document, does it not? If you're concerned with security, you would be concerned about me, because I'm the one sending you the email.

    @jfindlay and @levi- This might be wrong, but I believe the only reason email is still "frozen in time", is because the hacker community is keeping it there. Everyone seems interested in moving well past it, but it's like crabs in the bucket. If one crab tries to get out, the rest of the crabs pull it back in. I'm afraid we're in that position with email. So, it's refreshing to see Google attack it with their Wave application. Maybe the crabs can finally all leave the bucket.

    @Stephan K.- So, your issue is with style, not the method used to create that style. Your issue stems with people probably creating ugly backgrounds, 1990's images, massive text in crazy colors, and the like. Don't people also create butt-ugly styles with plain-text? Think about it. How is _underlining_, /italics/ and *bold* look better than underlining, italics and bold? Many people who receive such silly styling in their emails don't even know what __, // and ** are supposed to do. So, I share your concern with bad tastes in style, but I see no reason why HTML can't be used, and CSS styling of the email largely ignored.

    @Jeon-Marc Liotier- I used to think your way- that plain text is the lowest common denominator. Then I came to a realization- HTML is STILL ASCII, which means HTML is still plain text! Any email client should be able to parse ASCII, even if the tags are still in play. Yes, it might look horrid, but I firmly believe that you should get a new email client. Most, in fact dare I say "nearly ALL" email clients support HTML by default. The only one I can think of that does not, is Mutt. However, you can have mutt call up a browser, dump the text of the HTML file to a temporary file, then parse the plain text. But, what do you do for images, attachments or inline? Because of this, I've come to the conclusion that Mutt sucks. From it's website, most email clients suck, we just suck less. Well, Mutt still sucks.

    @Andy- I want the flexibility as an author to compose my email in a form that conveys the information I'm trying to get across. If this means changing the text "WARNING!" to red, so I can convey the danger of the following information, I want that ability. You may not care for that as a reader, and that is fine. As an author, am I not entitled to composing my email as a document? I find this is near impossible to do with plain text. Sure, I can break up paragraphs, and add bulleted lists, but how do I bold, underline, or italicize words? How do I change the color of words for emphasis, or change font styles or colors? How do I do tables in plain text?

    Also, as mentioned previously, your argument for security doesn't hold an ounce of water. Spammers are already doing these exploits. This is old hat. So, if I send you an email with an embedded map, your email client probably won't show you the images by default due to that very reason. I can think of four major email clients that do this by default. So, your issue with security isn't with the spamming community, it's with me. You're explicitly saying, you don't trust me. That's fine. I don't have a problem with that, but realize, these techniques have been in use for years.

    @Aigars Mahinovs- No, I might not as well be attaching MS PowerPoint presentations. That analogy makes no sense at all. First off, PowerPoint presentation files are binary, not ASCII. HTML is ASCII. As a result, any text editor can parse my HTML email, even if it doesn't strip out the tags. You can STILL READ IT. This is NOT the case with PowerPoint. Second, I'm not wanting to send a slide show in my email. If I do want to send a slideshow, I'll attach it. No, what I want to do is compose a nice looking email that conveys the information I want to get across in a pleasing manner. So, comparing PowerPoint to HTML email is not even remotely in the same ball game.

    I have no issue with the KISS principle, and I don't see HTML violating it. The author is the violator of the KISS principle, not the method he uses to convey the information. HTML, XML, RST, plain text, etc. All these methods of marking up (or down) the email are just tools. The user of these tools can either keep it simple in the mail, or complicate it to high heaven.

    Further, your analogy of Twitter fails as well. The text you send to Twitter cannot be exported to another service. It can't be taken out from the database into some external file. Twitter owns your data, and you don't get access to it. Email is the exact opposite. If I want to take my email from one server to another, this is rather easy. And, due to STMP standards, both servers will recognize the email. I can export all of my email to text, CSV, a database, and so on. Email is portable, Twitter is not.

    Lastly, every email client I've ever used on a phone supports HTML. If your phone's email client doesn't, then why is that my problem? Use an email client that doesn't suck.

    @Nemo Inis- Yes, it should be the convenience of the sender, that's exactly the point. The sender is composing the document, not the recipient! So, shouldn't the sender have the freedoms and tools necessary to convey the information in the way the sender wants? And how is HTML a dangerous technology? Isn't it the authors of the HTML document that are dangerous, not the technology itself? Haven't spammers been using dangerous techniques for decades now? So, your issue with the danger doesn't lie with the technology itself, but with the sender sending it. Do you trust your contacts in your contact list, or no? That's something you have to decide. But, if you would rather I send binary attachments, and keep my plain text email, I might as well just attach a virus, and call it a Word Document or a PNG image, right? No security implications there, right? C'mon.

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