Email: Plain Text or HTML?

It’s hard to believe it’s been so long since I’ve posted to the blog. Building a new home and then moving home and office takes a lot more time than you would think. But this topical debate drew me back into the fray. And it feels great to be back at the keyboard.

There has long been a debate about whether the “proper” format for email is plain text or HTML. I thought the issue had been resolved some time ago, but today I read the latest post on Bankruptcy Practice Pro blog, entitled Why Sending Email in Plain Text is the Smart Move, and had to comment.

When email first came on the scene bandwidth was sharply limited. Added to that was the myriad of ISP and mail server capabilities, different internet access software — remember this is before the evil empire temporarily tied up all web browsing to provide some consistency among users — and a whole host of DOS computers online. Those who transmitted in HTML often received scathing criticism, and rightfully so. Because on the receiving end, one could wind up with screens full of gibberish, and those bulky HTML formatted emails took what seemed like eons to download. Plus, from a security perspective, there were macro viruses which might be hidden in HTML code, which were stripped from plain text.

Nowadays, bandwidth is ample. You’d be hard-pressed to find any significant number of people using dial-up any more, and certainly not in a business setting. Most ISP’s have greatly upped not only speed, but the size of emails and attachments they easily handle. Download time is not an issue.

Notwithstanding that some organizations choose to limit the size of email attachments purposefully — a strategy I strongly disagree with — the size of HTML emails is no longer an issue. [Case in point, I was recently asked by another state bar association to send a higher quality PR photo. I did, but it bounced because their email system is purposefully set to limit the size of attachments they can receive to a ridiculously low size. It’s a source of frustration for most of their employees, but no one is telling the IT department about it.] In addition, the vast majority of users are set up to receive and view HTML without issue. In fact the survey referred to in the Bankruptcy Pro post indicates that presently 75% are set to send and receive HTML.

Those who are not set to view HTML are perfectly capable of doing so, but again, an old-fashioned strategy born in the days when bandwidth and hard drive space were limited and costly, has persisted through a set-up which is HTML-unfriendly. It’s a choice that is made by IT people, albeit a bad one. And the security issues that used to be associated with HTML is pretty much a thing of the past, thanks to the universal use of virus-scanning software.

Is HTML simply “pretty” or is it really useful? My opinion is unflinchingly that HTML is not just a pretty face. Every once in a while I must email a reply to a sender whose email system is set for plain text only. Frankly, it’s a pain to properly organize and present the information when I cannot use bold, italic, underline, hyperlinks, indentation, tables, bullets, numbers, and other tools which create both a clarity and convenience for the recipient of the information I send. Sometimes in frustration I just create the document and fax it instead.

I would not refrain from using HTML just because there is a 25% minority of users who have made a decision to be HTML-unfriendly. My opinion is that they should experience the result of that strategy by wading through the garbage their plain-text set-up provides. There, I’ve said it. It needed to be said. It’s absurd to conclude that 75% of users should reduce the functionality of their formatting in order to accommodate the 25% who choose to cling to outdated practices.

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