Re: HTML for email (was: Re: document writing/editing tools used by IETF)

Phillip Hallam-Baker <> Mon, 01 March 2021 14:22 UTC

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From: Phillip Hallam-Baker <>
Date: Mon, 1 Mar 2021 09:22:00 -0500
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Subject: Re: HTML for email (was: Re: document writing/editing tools used by IETF)
To: Keith Moore <>
Cc: IETF Discussion Mailing List <>
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Yes HTML is a disaster for email. But so is plaintext wrapped at 66
characters by the server because people didn't know better.

The reasons HTML is a disaster are

1) There is no standard for HTML in email.
2) HTML has been turned into a presentation format.
3) Email messages used annotations for a decade before HTML which doesn't
support them
4) The SMTP email infrastructure does not provide a viable means of knowing
what formats are accepted by a recipient so there is no way to fix this.

One painful side effect of 1 and 2 is that messages come with embedded font
size specifiers which is beyond stupid. The sender has no idea what device
I am reading something on. But Gmail will happily chose font size settings
that are frequently stupid. I have no control over that as a user.

But the last point is the most important because the difficulty of fixing
the SMTP infrastructure has become greater than the difficulty of replacing
it with something fit for purpose.

Of course the world is not going to move to something new overnight. But I
do have a plan.

On Mon, Mar 1, 2021 at 12:06 AM Keith Moore <>

> On 2/27/21 10:00 PM, John Levine wrote:
> > Indeed, but that was many decades ago. There are some ways in which the
> > IETF is cutting edge, some in which we are amusingly backward. Most
> > of the people I deal with can send an e-mail that says "I highlighted
> > the changes in yellow" and all of their correspondents see the yellow
> > text. Try that here. Remember that MIME was invented in the IETF and
> > HTML down the virtual hall from here, both about 30 years ago.
> Ok, but to be fair: HTML is a disaster for email.   Way back in the
> mid-1990s most of us thought it would work out ok, and more likely to
> succeed than text/richtext.   But we didn't really take the time to
> understand the nature of the problem in either case.    It's hard to
> write a good html editor for email, especially one that handles inline
> replies properly, and every single HTML editor for email I know of
> botches this.    Accidentally delete the line or invisible space before
> or after a change in format and it's likely to completely mess up your
> formatting, say by merging one correspondent's text with another.  HTML
> doesn't handle annotations well either because (gasp) text messages are
> not naturally hierarchical like HTML (and its *ML predecessors) expect
> them to be.   HTML hasn't exactly been a stable target either, and
> there's lots of variation among MUAs regarding which features are
> supported. It's hard to send an email message that looks more-or-less
> the same to every recipient.
> (And, IMO unfortunately, a lot of MUAs take liberties with presentation
> of email messages, which only exacerbates the above problems.)
> At the same time HTML is so widely deployed that it's very hard to
> deploy something that works better.
> The specific behavior you cite above is actually due to a failure of
> standardization, because the vast majority of Big Corporate environments
> have settled on 1 of about 2 email products overall.   Highlighting text
> in yellow doesn't work as well in IETF because IETF participants are
> (fortunately) still more diverse than Big Corporate employees.
> Keith