HTML IN E-MAIL: A BAD IDEA

Copyright Thomas Gramstad 2002


  1. HUH? HTML IN E-MAIL - WHAT'S THAT?
  2. WHY IS HTML IN E-MAIL A BAD IDEA?
  3. HOW CAN I AVOID HTML IN MY OUTGOING E-MAIL?
  4. HOW CAN I AVOID HTML IN MY INCOMING E-MAIL?
  5. SOURCES AND LITERATURE

HUH? HTML IN E-MAIL - WHAT'S THAT?

Unfortunately, today some of the common e-mail clients are provided to the customer with a "rich text" setting (also known as "styled" or "stylized text", or "formatted text") turned on - instead of providing the user with a Plain Text setting and leaving it to the user to turn on a styled text feature if they want it, as an active and informed choice by the user. As a result, many users have no idea that this feature is turned on in their e-mail client, and no understanding of what this does with their outgoing mail, and the problems that this feature may cause. It's important to understand that when this text formatting is turned on, this means that the text one writes in an e-mail message is embedded in HTML code. The HTML code is what provides the formatting (or "stylization", such as fancy font types, colored text etc.) of the text in the E-mail message, in pretty much the same way that HTML code provides the layout of the text on a web page. Unfortunately, while HTML code works well (usually) on a web page when viewed with a web browser, it works really poor in E-mail, causing many problems. Therefore it's generally a bad idea to use HTML code in E-mail.

WHY IS HTML IN E-MAIL A BAD IDEA?

  1. The virus danger. Some viruses use Javascript/VBScript and thus can propagate via HTML mail (which can contain Javascripts and VBS-scripts). By using plain text you are reducing the virus risk for yourself and your friends.
  2. Some E-mail clients display HTML-code in E-mail as HTML-code, and not as "stylized text". This is annoying and unreadable.
  3. HTML-encoded postings may be mangled when they are distributed via listserver software. If you post to a group of people, try to be readable to the whole group.
  4. Messages addressed to and containing commands to a list server or other type of robot that are embedded in HTML code will usually not be recognized by the robot, and thus the commands will not be executed by the robot. This causes annoyance and extra work both for you and the list administrators.
  5. A posting with HTML-coded (stylized) text is 4-5 times as big as the same posting in plain text - this adds up to a big increase in disk usage, and in download time for such postings. As pay-per-volume is getting more and more common, this is not only a waste of time, but also of money. Also, many people still use modems, and are then slowed even more down by all the HTML code. Contribute to a faster, less expensive Internet by using plain text.
  6. Stylized text looks different in various E-Mail programs, different computer systems, and different word processing programs, whose files and formats are often not fully compatible with each other. Any of these can cause trouble with attachments, which are displayed differently. In some cases, the message may come through as nothing but garbled text. Plain text, on the other hand, works everywhere and looks pretty much the same everywhere.
  7. Microsoft uses non-standard HTML that deviates from the HTML standard and thus doesn't work properly on other platforms like Mac, Linux/Unix, Lotus Notes etc. Choose a text format that works for as many people, platforms, applications and clients as possible.
  8. The colors in HTML e-mail work poorly with many non-PC computer screens or work stations.
  9. It's up to the receiver, not the sender, to decide such things as font types and sizes, text colors and background colors (if any) in their E-mail. For the receiver, HTML E-mail (even when it works as the sender intended) is like a TV without color- and contrast adjustment buttons. That's not progress, it's the opposite.
  10. There is no simple, standardized way to translate a HTML-encoded e-mail message into braille, or into a reading-aloud device. Thus, the blind and the weak-sighted are excluded from enjoying a posting that is embedded in HTML code. Use plain text to include them.
  11. Some spammers use a picture reference to a server to determine whether the addresses they have snooped are actually working (a "web bug" (see link to the Web Bug FAQ from the reference section below) that may be hidden in HTML code in E-mail). Disable this possibility by only using and allowing plain text.
  12. Many command line interface (CLI) e-mail clients have problems with HTML e-mail. (CLI applications are usually small, fast and standardized, used on slow connections (e.g., remote login, PDAs, cell phones etc.) or just whenever you want to read something fast. HTML-encoded E-mail slows everything down and may screw up your display.).
  13. Most spam and other junk mail is HTML-encoded mail. Therefore, increasingly people who filter their E-mail choose to set up filter rules that screen out HTML-encoded E-mail. Thus, by sending HTML-encoded messages, you lose these readers. Since people who filter their E-mail are usually experienced or sophisticated users, this may be a significant loss, especially if you seek well-informed responses to your messages. (You could argue that these people ought to just strip the HTML from their incoming mail (see the section about this below) and keep the plain text part, rather than delete the whole message, but these people often feel swamped by all the E-mail they receive, and may therefore take drastic or overkill measures to eliminate wasteful E-mail from their mailboxes.)

Each of the above reasons alone is a sufficient reason for avoiding HTML in E-mail! The conclusion is clear: Use plain text whenever you can - and you almost always can. Basically, HTML belongs on web pages, and e-mail isn't web pages. HTML in E-mail isn't an industrial standard (plain text is).

HOW CAN I AVOID HTML IN MY OUTGOING E-MAIL?

You can check whether HTML encoding is turned off in your E-mail client, and turn it off if it isn't. How do you do that in your particular e-mail client? Luckily, some helpful people have gathered this information for many different e-mail clients. Below you will find a list of links to such compilations of recipes for how to turn off the HTML code in your E-mail. Either one of the links should be enough to find the recipe for your particular e-mail client; if not, try another one.

http://helpdesk.rootsweb.com/listadmins/plaintext.html
http://www.thepwa.net/members/disabling.html
http://www.expita.com/nomime.html
http://www.eudora.com/techsupport/kb/908hq.html

How to Turn Off HTML in Hotmail
http://research.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/hotmailstop.html

How do I stop AOL from sending HTML to the Internet?
AOL version 6:
http://www.obri.net/aol/
AOL version 7:
http://obri.net/aol/70.html

HOW CAN I AVOID HTML IN MY INCOMING E-MAIL?

The easiest way to do this is to install a utility or script that simply strips away all the HTML code from postings automatically, and then to make sure that all your incoming E-mail is piped through the script before it ends up in your mailbox.

This is also very useful if you are the administrator of one or more mailing lists and want to make sure that all list postings as well as messages with commands to the listserver are HTML-free. You then install the script so that all the mail to the list(s) or listserver is piped through it before reaching the listserver.

The most common scripts for stripping HTML as well as other unwanted attachments are Demime and Stripmime. They are both free software that you can download from the net:

http://scifi.squawk.com/demime.html
http://www.clarity.net/~adam/stripmime/

If you are unexperienced in installing such a script, team up with your local geek. If you are a list owner who want to strip your mailing list mail, you need to work together with the people who run your listserver.

Another way to help reducing the amount of HTML in your incoming e-mail is to try to educate your correspondents and posters, teaching them how to turn off the HTML encoding of their E-mail, by providing them the URL's in the previous section (or to this document). Of course, that's more time-consuming than just stripping the HTML away.

Good luck to you, and if you have more points or links that you think should be added to this document, please feel free to provide them.

SOURCES AND LITERATURE

1. MORE ARTICLES AND WEB SITES ABOUT HTML IN E-MAIL:

Why HTML in E-Mail is a Bad Idea, by shacker@birdhouse.org
http://www.betips.net/etc/evilmail.html

Friends Don't E-Mail Friends HTML, by Julia Scheeres
http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,41639,00.html

No-HTML plug-in for Outlook available, by Thomas C Greene
http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/4/23223.html

Wait! Don't Forward That E-Mail, by Julia Scheeres
http://www.wired.com/news/technology/1,1282,41608,00.html

Solving the Problem of HTML Mail, By Shane Coursen
http://online.securityfocus.com/columnists/58

To convert incoming HTML messages to plain text or Rich Text format, by Slipstick Systems:
http://www.slipstick.com/dev/code/zaphtml.htm

2. E-MAIL ETIQUETTE (NETIQUETTE) IN GENERAL:

E-mail policies that prevent viruses, by Advosys Consulting
http://www.advosys.ca/papers/mail-policies.html

E-mail Etiquette (Netiquette), by Chris Pirillo
http://www.writerswrite.com/journal/dec99/pirillo1.htm

E-mail Formatting FAQ
http://www.hwg.org/resources/faqs/mailFAQ.html

We Can Put an End to Word Attachments, by Richard M. Stallman
http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/no-word-attachments.html

Why You Should Never Ever Distribute Chain Letters by Thomas Gramstad
http://www.efn.no/chainletter.html

Everything E-mail, by Mary Houten-Kemp
http://www.everythingemail.net/email_help_tips.html

FAQ: Web Bugs, by Richard M. Smith
http://www.privacyfoundation.org/resources/webbug.asp

Netiquette - Internet Etiquette
http://mel.lib.mi.us/internet/INET-netiquette.html

Netiquette Home Page
http://www.albion.com/netiquette/



The original address of this document:
http://www.efn.no/html-bad.html

The address of the author:
thomas@gramstad.no


Last updated by   Thomas Gramstad     October 23   2003.