Why HTML in E-Mail Is a Bad Idea

I receive email frequently on a piece I wrote many years ago, Why HTML in E-Mail is a Bad Idea. It was written before the days of weblogs, so that page doesn’t allow comments. I no longer have a whole lot of interest in the topic and don’t feel like keeping the page updated, so thought it might make sense to create a page here so the public could leave comments on the topic — agreement / disagreement, tips and tricks, etc. Feel free to leave your comments on the above-linked piece here.

39 thoughts on “Why HTML in E-Mail Is a Bad Idea

  1. My Collegues use Outlook; they use Word. They have Outlook use Word as a Composing Client for Outlook Email.
    They wonder why their Email never looks the way it’s supposed to.
    My Emails are always sent in Plain Text; I use Lucida Console as my font.

    Corporate Bulletins arrive as Word Documents in Reader View. All Documentary Correspondence back to Corporate takes the form of PDF documents.

    Whenever someone complains to me about Word not working properly; I start up Publisher for them. 10 out of 10 times, they’re trying to do page layout.

    Hopefully some of these idiots will realise that you should use the right tool for the right job. Word is the wrong tool for most jobs.

  2. I don’t think “Word sucks” and “HTML e-mail is bad” are the same thing.

    It’s not hard at all to find a list of good things about HTML-formatted e-mail. The ability to use italics and boldface type, for starters. Or the ability to include pictures in-line instead of having to attach them separately.

    Some of the advantages of HTML-based mail are purely cosmetic, like the ability to send e-mails on a company letterhead. But I don’t understand why some folks disparage those things. We don’t use Underwoods and blank sheets of typing paper for business correspondence any more. We use word processors and pre-printed letterhead. In fact, companies invest a small fortune on things like business letterhead. Extending this same capability to e-mail only makes sense.

    HTML is a document-markup format. The fact that some generators don’t produce very good HTML doesn’t mean that HTML itself is a bad idea. (Well, okay, you could make the argument that HTML is in fact a pretty rotten implementation, but what with XHTML and whatnot, at least they’re working on improving it.)

  3. We don’t use Underwoods and blank sheets of typing paper for business correspondence any more

    We also tend not to care about the color of the shirt the person on the other end of a phone call is wearing. Content will always win out over decoration.

    I view all e-mail as text. Your HTML will never display. If you’re planning on your undelrines and italics and text formatting to add to your message, it won’t on my machine. All your formatting goes *poof*.

    Pretty letterhead and fun text formatting and nifty font selections do not outweigh the incredible security problems that have been created by HTML e-mail.

    It’s like arguing, “We don’t use spears any more, so why should anyone in this advanced day and age not have their own surface-to-air missile? Who cares if they have no idea how to use it or its implications on the world at large? It’s COOL!”

  4. I never use HTML in my e-mails. Especially when I’m chatting with folks in PGPNET, because HTML plus PGP equals a complete mess.

  5. I actually switched recently and am using HTML mail. IMO, mailers have become sufficiently advanced to handle multipart messages, so the recipient can view the plaintext part if that’s their preference. If their mailer can’t handle multipart messages, they are often advanced users who have their .mailcap set up to strip out the HTML.

    Mneptok: I think it’s wonderful that you strip out the HTML from the mail you receive, but what does that have to do with me sending it? For every nerdy correspondent I have who complains about HTML mail, I have 100 who either prefer HTML mail or could care less.

    The “security problems” are a red herring, imho. Saying that a tool can be abused is like banning all kitchen knives because occasionally a knife is used for a mugging. I have scripting disabled in my mailers, so should you. If you don’t, you likely don’t give a shit about security, and there are 1000 other vectors for badness into your computer.

  6. HTML emails are almost always eeeeeevil! (he said in his best Grandpa Simpson voice)

    And what’s wrong with typewriters ? I just bought a brand new Olivetti manual at 70% off from a place that’s going out of business. Just the ticket for one-off envelopes or those pesky “fill in the blanks” forms you still get from gov’t or business. Manual typewriters gots soul :)

  7. For all you luddites out there decrying HTML e-mail, perhaps you’d argue that we should go back to the days of command-line interfaces and other text-only media. I know you probably think it’s retro-chique to whine about HTML email and yet you crave CSS over *plain* HTML pages (you know, black text on a gray background with blue hypertext links). Bunch of hypocrites.

    And to the loser, mneptok, who thinks “content will always win out over decoration”: please never work for an ad agency…or anyone else who sells/markets anything…oh yeah, and forget about things like professional appearance, style, etc. No wait, you have. The ignorance of your statement is staggering. (Hint: you can have substance *AND* style…they’re not mutually exclusive).

  8. I recently found out that in Apple Mail (version 2.1) the “plain text” option does include html although. The only difference to “formated text” seems to be that the formating options are hidden.
    Is there a work around to create “really plain” mails?

  9. Hi Stephan –

    I just did a quick test and don’t see any evidence of Mail.app sending multipart email when set to plain text mode. I’m getting “really plain.” What are you seeing?

  10. I just have to say thank you for the hilarious analogies. How about “if you aunt had balls she’d be your uncle”. There is nothing wrong with HTML formatted email itself.

  11. HTML in email just goes to show that entropy is ever increasing. just like so many things in the world today, “public policy” makes “the law” – regardless of what is intelligent or proper. i should remind people that the average IQ is 100, and that’s pretty stupid – but that is what backs the policies of companies like Microsoft/Apple who profit off morons. it comes down to the 98% of IQ’s less than 135 versus the 2% with IQ’s over 135. the 2% most always lose. it’s like comparing people that listen to 9V AM Radios to sports-morons with 10ft HDTV sets. the ones with the glitter are the morons with the empty heads. [damn – i was in my Lynx text browser, and then came upon this damn “enter the code that you see in the image” box – gdammit!]

  12. Hey chad, IQ is nothing, EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE is everithing ;)
    This “HTML in e-mail” discussion is like the never ending “Windows vs Linux” one.

  13. wake up you guys! big companies like e-bay, microsoft, doubleclick, etc, all use secret web bugs in your html emails to monitor, track, and stalk your every surf and browse. they then harvest your cookies from your pc and get all your personal preferences, and who knows, financial, personal info…. if that’s not enough to invade your privacy, there’s the lovely malware and phishing to steal your identity. good luck folks, i’m going back to plain text, receiving and sending!

  14. I can agree with monitor and track but you’re a little off with the stalking, harvesting cookies, personal preferences, financial, personal info. They just can’t do that unless they get something running on your comp and html email can’t do that.

  15. wake up you guys! big companies like e-bay, microsoft, doubleclick, etc, all use secret web bugs in your html emails to monitor, track, and stalk your every surf and browse.

    they actually only see if you’ve read their email (with external images on). Also, even some individuals do this.

  16. I received an HTML email last week from Microsoft and now I cant get an erection. It should be banned.

    jonty :(

  17. We managed to add styles to e-mail years before HTML mailers existed.

    _underline_
    *bold*
    /italic/

    And the idea of having a link disguised as _click here_ has led to vast amount of compromised PC’s, and the web with a reputation for being unsafe.

    We spent years trying to educate the noobs about why HTML was bad in e-mails, and we still lost the battle.

  18. We managed to add styles to e-mail years before HTML mailers existed.

    _underline_
    *bold*
    /italic/

    …which are so nicely supported on Thunderbird.

  19. Much of this discussion misses the point. It’s not about whether HTML is “a good thing” in some absolute sense. HTML is a fine technology… but using all the technology you’ve got is not always the right thing to do.

    In particular, while there are plenty of reasons for _sending_ HTML email, there are also plenty of good reasons for not allowing your email client to _receive_ it. HTML is used extensively by spammers, or for phishing attacks, or concealing malicious payloads. Or by m0r0ns to dress up messages that I probably don’t want to read regardless of what font they’re in. TEXT is used to communicate information… which is what I use my email client for. If I can filter out the fancy CrAp, my email is just that much better.

    Sure, I love nice layouts and pretty pictures as much as the next person But when I want all that formatting, I can easily find a way to view it in my browser, which has plenty of tools for controlling it, storing it, manipulating it. For things like newsletters, RSS is perfect… the right tool for the job. But it makes great sense to keep one channel that is deliberately restricted to text only.

    The reason we don’t want HTML in email is the same reason we don’t have flying cars, or dine every night with sporks.

  20. I want my flying car. Anyway, you seem to be in the minority since everyone wants a nice looking HTML email. My company uses them to send out evaluation reports. We only send email to our clients. Yes it’s a little more difficult to do. Yes, we send out a multipart with a plain text version also. It just looks nice. I am an avid backpacker and I enjoy getting REI emails in HTML format in my inbox. I also get weekly wine tasting menus from the local wine shop that I go to every once in a while in an HTML email. You’re talking about everything you don’t want to receive in the first place. That’s not the fault of the HTML email itself.

  21. Recently, I’ve converted to sending HTML email,
    whenever I’m trying to explain something complicated.

    The only things I use it for is indenting lines of text,
    which entails also setting the font and font size
    so that the formatting comes out as expected.

    I use a type semantic formatting
    that is based on indenting individual lines
    and breaking them at semantically meaningful points. This makes the text much easier to read.

    Most of these problems, esp. the security problems, could be obviated by defining a limited subset of HTML commands that an email client will accept, most “rich text” type of elements. Of course, images and scripts would not be included.

    Someone should write a TB extension for this.

  22. but if someone just “writes a TB extension”, it won’t become a standard.

    I think plaintext is enough for email. People used email long before HTML. To read my @rootshell.be email, I use “mail” (the Unix command), which, as a console program, obviously doesn’t support HTML. (Ever tried browsing the web with “telnet google.com 80”?) For Gmail (and rootshell, if it still has unread emails), I use Thunderbird set to plaintext mode, which ignores any HTML content. Occasionally some moron (hint: Comcast) sends me an email with empty (but existing) text/plain part, causing TB to display an empty message. In this case, I switch to “simple HTML”, which ignores all formatting except {b}old, {i}talic, {small} and such. So where you see a paragraph nicely indented to 12340 pt, I only see {p style=”text-indent: 3pt;”} – that is, if I’m in “view source” mood.
    ^D
    EOF
    grawity@rootshell ~ $ logout

  23. Deeps – Do you feel that way for a reason, or are you just saying it for no particular reason? It’s like you’re saying pencils and pens are outdated, or screwdrivers are outdated. Other tools exist to write or to drive screws, but much/most of the time, the right tool for the job is the standard tool.

  24. I love pencils, specifically mechanical pencils. They don’t need electricity, and no one bothers to steal them. Computers are something you use at home or at work. When you’re out and about, a paper folder is enough. How many people have been burned by stolen laptops?

    I feel the same about PDAs. I love my old black & white Palm Pilot. I don’t really need color, and I can use it a lot longer without recharging it, which is much more convenient. Smart phone? Not until I can get one that’s not tied to a single service provider.

    I stopped using HTML in emails. All I really wanted was line breaks and indentation. Proportional text is easier to read than monospace, but most email clients can be set to display plaintext messages in the proportional font of your choice. It’s purely on your end. The message still has no formatting.

    Maybe this topic should switch to inappropriate use of technology. I’d love to teach a class on how to write web pages the right way, that is without Javascript or Flash, but right now I’m too busy preparing my course on how to not answer the phone.

  25. Almost everything has been said about this topic. This is a lost battle.

    I am on the side who, for security reasons, do not want to receive html, nor I want to render it if a spammer sends it. I will not send html. The /latter/ is possible to arrange in Outlook.

    The reason I hate this is that Microsoft redefined the meaning of email using noobie customers they have in large quantities. The problem is not that somebody wants to send HTML and somebody wants to receive it, but the lack of respect that Microsoft showed when it suddenly rendered millions of Pine, etc email clients unable to show email sent by family members who are not that computer literate and used Outlook.

  26. If everyone would quit using Pine and other stone-age email clients, it wouldn’t really matter. Pine isn’t even supported anymore, and people still insist on using it. Then they complain when their obsolete client can’t understand the formatting of emails, or how it does horrible things to attachments, etc.

  27. 1. My boss hates to open attachments; he wants information readily readable on the message window (I could understand that–he skims thousands mails a week). I have reports that is best presented in tabulation form. You would need ten times the efford to understand my data without tabulation. I used to send him plain text, but my data table often got scrambled on his screen. I am forced to use html.

    2. We have multiple languages in a message chain. Plain text doesn’t seem to preserve the encoding well (maybe problems with some mail clients–but that is a problem beyond *my* control). Html seemed to work better. I am forced to use html.

  28. I’ve been using email since 1985 and I’ve always preferred plain text. In fact, the only time I’ve purposely used something beyond plain text is just to see what could be done. Anything beyond plain text is really just a waste of resources. The words are no more valuable because they’re in color, a different face type or size, or because they’re in fancy boxes.

    The fact that files can be attached has only made email a poor tool for transferring files that should really be transferred and displayed by other programs.

  29. Well I just stumbled upon this, its quite interesting seeing this old perspective.

    Html email is completely accepted now, for probably a few reasons.
    Easy to put images into an email with html. this is especially relevant to companies that send emails out (the majority of emails now probably)
    Webmail clearly wants to use html, and webmail is much more used than mail apps.
    Internet is much faster and storage is much bigger, sending a html document or plaintext is pretty irrelevant now.

  30. oh, and also, html does everything plaintext does, but also does more, so if everyone uses html, everyone ‘wins’

  31. To my mind, it’s a matter of “keep it simple”. If you need to inline a picture, or need to use color or tables to make your content clear, then by all means hit the checkbox for HTML.

    If all you’re doing is sending black text on a white background in an arbitrary font, then leaving it as plain text strips out the extra complexity that adds nothing other than an increased chance of screwups.

  32. Oh how times have changed – 2017 checking in.
    Personally I don’t use personal email that often to communicate with people, only receive emails from websites / subscriptions, in fact the last time I sent an outgoing email from my personal address was back in early July.

    I’m early 20s, in my middle teenage years MySpace and MSN were all the rage and I never really recall using email much except for emailing in assignments at school, now the majority of friends, at least my age, use Facebook messenger and Whatsapp.

    Its interesting to see the comments from 10 years ago regarding some of the tactics such as server hosted images being used to track if emails have been viewed or not – it seems my generation (and presumably the future) are more than happy to forgo privacy for convenience at the drop of a hat, personally its something I am on the fence with the cost vs benefit.

  33. I can still remember the days that rich text loaded really slow, and downloading HTML emails by POP3 takes minutes.
    As the computing power and O/I is cheap enough now, these facts are not matter any more, the cost is under control.
    Gmail really did a good job on creating simple enough HTML mail content, usability and readability are actually superior.

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