Words by c.z.robertson

Could html mail be done properly?

2001-01-13 02:00:00 UTC

Html in email annoys me. A lot. But actually there's nothing intrinsically wrong with using a markup language to describe basic formatting or semantics in email, and html isn't such a bad place to start.

Plain text has some quite obvious disadvantages. The line breaking system is very inflexible. Most mailers break lines before 80 columns, thus preventing the reader from choosing their own formatting. On the other hand, the mailers that don't break lines mess up the quoting system. The indents from multiple quotings lead mailers to break the lines of quoted text again. Fixed width fonts are always assumed. It's all a bit horrible. Using a markup language similar to html could quite easily solve all these problems.

The language should be restricted to quite a small subset of html. The use of network resources such as images would be inappropriate since a lot of people read their mail offline. In the interests of separating presentation from content, html 3.2 presentational features such as font tags and color attributes shouldn't be included.

In fact, the issue of how presentation should be handled is a rather complex one. Preferably, presentation should be entirely up to the reader, but I'm not sure how popular that would be. It's because people like to put text in gaudy colours that html is used in email today.

There's also the issue of whether it should be possible to embed objects in the email. Again, it'd be better if it wasn't, but people will want to put pictures in their email. With both this and with presentation, it is certain that if they were not part of the specification, Microsoft and Netscape et al would find some way of extending the system to include these features.

The other big issues are the utter uselessness of most wysiwyg systems for dealing with semantic markup and, of course, backwards compatibility. All things considered, I'm quite pessimistic that this will ever be done right.