A wish for email in 2017

Close-up of a person's hand on a laptop keyboard, with neon closed envelope email icons floating around their fingers.

There are so many ways in which email continues to develop and progress, but in one way email still lives in the last decade.

Despite huge advances in web browser technology and capability, virtually every email client and platform only supports a stripped down, limited HTML, like something from the early 2000s. In times past this restriction made total sense. The majority of messages were sent from person to person and only took advantage of the most basic HTML capabilities.

Vulnerability scanning was relatively poor, and compromises commonplace. To further exacerbate the problem, email was not authenticated and reputation systems were more a pipe dream than a reality. Spammers took advantage of HTML tricks to confuse filters and sneak into inboxes.

Since then, things have come a very long way. Authentication and reputation are key elements of email. Spam filters are enormously sophisticated and highly effective.

Perhaps more importantly while email’s preeminence as a one to one channel has been declining, its value and importance for commercial communications has been continuing to grow. Much of the email we receive and value is commercial in nature – marketing, notifications, updates, calendar invites, reminders, etc..

My wish for 2017 is that email catches up with the web and the email fairy brings it full HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

Why? I hear you cry, and I’m very glad you asked.

First off, it would make emails look better. Many aspects of a modern website are just not possible in email. For sure, some enterprising developers have found tricks and ways to work around some of the limitations but even so, emails still look like they were crafted by GeoCities. Improved layout, proper font support and better typography, HTML5 video, all these things should be possible.

Then there’s the actual development. Right now we spend an inordinate amount of time and effort working around the idiosyncrasies of HTML for email. It’s so peculiar, it’s essentially its own dialect.

When you tell a web developer that they have to use table layout and that media queries aren’t fully supported, their heads explode because it’s no longer Y2K. All these limitations make email production far more complex, slow, and expensive than it needs to be.

The two really important benefits, though, are dynamism and interactivity. Being able to update content in real time would enable emails to have fully up to date information. At present this is achieved by using images that are dynamically generated but this is a pale imitation of true real-time content.

Similarly, supporting interactivity within email messages would open up a huge range of opportunities and capabilities. The days of endless new windows and popups on the web are long gone. Websites work like applications with interactions occurring seamlessly within the page.

The same should be true for email. I want to be able to buy products, book events, scroll through a directly, even unsubscribe directly within my email.

Finally, just in case it slipped by earlier, real video. On all devices. No more video on one platform, an animated gif on another and the first frame looking like a “click to play” image, all with complex workarounds to achieve only 60% success.

Am I asking too much? I don’t think so. Hotmail demonstrated that it’s possible back in 2011. Unfortunately they went with a proprietary approach that made it unattractive to implement, reduced adoption, and ensured no other providers followed suit.

Direct support of HTML, CSS and JavaScript would be much more attractive. Application of modern authentication, reputation, spam filtering and malware identification can ensure it is not abused by bad actors.

Of course there are barriers to implementation. Popular desktop email clients such as Microsoft Outlook would be slow to refit for full HTML, and even then adoption would take a long time. But more and more users are checking email through webmail and mobile device apps. Rollout of functionality to these platforms can be achieved far more quickly, thereby encouraging widespread adoption.

Is this going to happen? Given that Hotmail tested the waters and even Gmail has been softening its stance on CSS, it could happen, although I concede it’s unlikely. But after all, isn’t that what wishes are about?

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