Fancy e-mail

With fancy e-mail I mean HTML mail.

Most mail applications are able to send (and receive) messages in two formats: text only or HTML, and most applications use HTML by default, which is a BAD THING.

People like to use HTML e-mail, because it looks nicer with all those colors, fonts, pictures,… and therefore most software companies like it.

But for writing a simple “Hello, how is life in Lleida?” message you don’t need bold words nor blue titles. Plain text is probably better readable than that piece of art some people create.

There are of course always cases in which HTML mail is better, but usually that has to do with Viagra marketing, and those messages are deleted immediately.

You might think that even if you don’t use fancy effects, HTML mail could not harm anybody, could it? Wrong! There are a number of reasons why I (and many other people) consider HTML mail harmful:

  • HTML mail wastes bandwidth HTML code adds usually 200% to the size of the message. I know, for your short message this is only a very little bit, but if I have been away for the weekend and find tens of HTML messages I urgently want to read, I get nervous when I am waiting 5 minutes (yes, I am using a slow modem) while it could have been finished within 2 minutes!
  • HTML mail is more vulnerable for viruses This is a really important one. By using HTML mail, one of the main security principles are broken: separate code from content. HTML mail (content) can contain scripts (code) that virus writers exploit. Many of the famous Trojan Worms would never have been spread around if people would have used plain text messages by default.
  • HTML mail can connect to the internet This is something used a lot in spam. They include an image which is stored on their server and insert it into the message with some kind of parameter. The moment you read the message, the image is fetched from their server, passing the parameter to the sender of the message. The result is that your e-mail address will be listed as ‘verified’ and therefore will receive more spam.
  • HTML incompatibilities Most people who create websites know how difficult it is to create a page that looks alright on all mayor browsers. Guess what? E-mail clients have the same problems! The message that looks perfect in your Outlook Express can look completely different on the computer of your sister, who uses Eudora to read her mail. And there are still people around with mail applications that don't support HTML at all!
  • HTML mail is slow Plain text messages only have to be shown on screen, but ‘rich’ messages need preprocessing. Especially on old computers the difference is very clear. Wait, hasn't your neighbour still got that old-timer Pentium II? Better send him plain text next time, I am sure he will appreciate it! This does not only go for old computers, but more and more people start reading their mail using PDA's or cellphones.

In short: unless you have very good reasons to use HTML mail, I would ask you to send plain text messages. If the appearance of the message is so important, you’re probably better off by sending it as a PDF attachment or publishing it on a web page; those media are suited better for this task.

Go ahead, configure your mail client to send plain ASCII text.

Jeroen Sangers @jeroensangers