Email And The Fight For Standards

Email Standards Project
As a young web designer who cares about standards and accessibility, but also about paying the rent and having enough left over to buy some slick gadgets, I often find myself stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place when it comes to designing HTML emails for a client.

You see, on one hand there’s a strong part of me saying, “No! Don’t do it! It’s not worth it to revert to web practices straight out of 1999. Tables are bad! Inline styling is bad! People hate HTML email! Your code is ugly! Fish are friends, not food!”

But then the devil on my right shoulder (wearing a blue dress, not a blue beanie) speaks up to say, “Dude, you need money if you want that [insert latest Apple product here]. Clients will not settle for text-only emails, or at least they won’t pay you for them. And besides, studies show that HTML emails are actually much more cost-effective for businesses. Suck it up a code a table, you sissy. Everybody used to do it, why do you think you’re exempt?”

To some of you, this whole discussion might seem to be flying 50,000 feet up, but here I’ll try to summarize:

In web design, it is now widely accepted that using Tables (grids of rows and columns, just like one you’d create in MS Word) for the structure of a website is a bad practice because it doesn’t allow for the separation of content (the text and pictures and videos) from presentation, and requires a ton of maintenance, among (many) other things. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) emerged years ago as the solution to this problem, allowing designers to change the look of an entire site simply by editing a couple lines in a single external file (instead of every line on every page), and after a lot of activism in those early days, is now widely accepted as the proper way to code a site. Standards-compliant pages tend to load faster, have shorter development times, and are readable by every device now and in the future that has support for these standards.

The trouble is, most email clients don’t have this support, and some (like Outlook 2007) have even less support than their predecessors. Worse still, every single email client has vastly different support for various CSS/HTML elements, and will render your code in disgustingly problematic ways. So, by and large, many web design companies have abandoned email design, or if not, done it begrudgingly, ashamedly.

I’ve done my share, and it’s not glamorous work. Looking at what I’ve just written sometimes makes me want to cry (in pretty much the same manner that coding all-Flash sites does, but that’s a post for another day).

Finally, some of the big guns in web design and standards-advocacy are taking a stand and beginning to fight for standards support in all the major email clients, rather than ignoring the practicalities and pretending that HTML emails don’t or shouldn’t exist. That kind of denial sounds nice in theory, but in practice it’s totally flawed. Today, the default in nearly every email program is to send an HTML-formatted email. Any time you change the colors, or the fonts, or add some underlining or embed a picture - that’s HTML. So, if it has to exist anyway, shouldn’t it be done right?

These reasons (and others) are why the announcement of the Email Standards Project is such a big deal, and why I can hardly wait for the day when I’ll have coded my final bit of inline styling.

If you’re in the business, please join me in supporting this initiative. Here’s how you can help.

Never Buy Toilet Paper Again!

The Problem
Why make a shopping trip once a month to buy toilet paper? (Or once a week if you live in New York and can only buy as much as you can carry on the subway.) Why should you have to remember to replace your toothbrush, or to buy more vitamins, or a fresh box of tampons, or those energy bars you eat every morning and buy in enormous quantities? Why, if you have a small business, do you pay one of your employees run to the store every week to buy more instant coffee? What about diapers? Babies poop a lot, and carrying huge packages of Pampers home from Costco every week is a major chore.

Constantly procuring all these everyday items, these necessities of living, uses up a lot of what might otherwise be free (or more productive) hours.

The Solution
What if you didn’t have to shop for these anymore? What if they just showed up on your doorstep every 1, 2, 3, or 6 months? What if shipping was free? What if everything was automated, yet you had the flexibility to change shipment frequencies with a click? What if there were a way to get toothbrushes every three months, vitamins and cereal and shampoo every month, and laundry detergent twice a year? What if it were possible to have coffee delivered to your office, tampons delivered to your apartment, and soap delivered to your ex-boyfriend’s place? What if there were no commitment, no minimum order, no fees whatsoever?

And then you save an additional 15% off your order. Off all your orders. Forever.

So About That Flying Car...
This awesome scenario is no George Jetson Pipe Dream, it’s a reality called Subscribe & Save, a new offering by - you probably guessed it - Amazon.

Sounds great to me.

The only slight problem I see is that most items are sold in bulk, which means having to clear out some space for storage. It’d also be great to have a weekly delivery option, but I understand the financial and logistical issues with this at the moment. However, a program like this is a wonderful step into the future, and will no doubt become even more flexible, and capable, as volume increases, and Amazon finds more cost- and time-efficient shipping methods.

What do you think? Useful?

What everyday items would you like to never have to worry about again?

Amazon to Re-“Kindle” Book Sales?

Run, don’t walk to read this article on Newsweek announcing Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader. Though more official details will be announced later today, Steven Levy’s cover story, “Reinventing the Book,” is more than worth a read.

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of electronic book readers, which some might find odd considering my near-fetishistic love of books-as-objects. What strikes me in the gut as an absolute truth, however, is this line by Jeff Bezos:
The key feature of a book is that it disappears.
He goes on to say this, in explanation:
I've actually asked myself, 'Why do I love these physical objects?' says Bezos. 'Why do I love the smell of glue and ink?' The answer is that I associate that smell with all those worlds I have been transported to. What we love is the words and ideas.
If I were to be asked why I thought that the Amazon Kindle would succeed where many others (like the Sony Reader) have failed, my answer would be, “Because Jeff gets it.”

By all accounts, Amazon has thought long and hard about what it means to be a book (they should know!), and what it means to improve upon this centuries-old form factor.

Here are some other reasons:
  • The Kindle is constantly connected to the Web via Sprint’s EVDO network, and this connectivity is free, allowing ubiquitous one-click downloads across the U.S. Talk about an easy impulse buy before a plane flight.
  • Book prices are standardized, taking a cue from iTunes.
  • You can subscribe to newspapers and blogs (and search Google/Wikipedia) on the device.
  • Millions of people already trust Amazon when it comes to books.
  • Amazon, better than pretty much anyone, understands how to make low-margin, high-volume profitable.
All of these are good reasons. But for me, the important thing is a gut feeling that they will get this right. It’s been nearly time for ebooks to take off for years now. Today, with Amazon’s announcement, the floodgates have been opened and the future is nigh.

This will be going on my Amazon Wishlist for sure.

“Do Not Track” Stupidity

A do-not-track list has been proposed by some privacy and consumer advocacy groups, to allow web surfers to opt out of behavior-tracking online as it relates to advertising. This list, unsurprisingly, is modeled after the popular “Do-Not-Call” list that takes your number off telemarketing directories, but there are some important distinctions that make this a really stupid idea.

First, it’s important to clarify what happens in behavioral advertising and why privacy groups are concerned.

Watch this video:

Now, the video is made by Google, so it’s got some spin on it, but the basics are spot on. Behavioral advertising keeps track of your search queries and clicks to serve up more relevant ads. Using your IP address to get a rough idea of your location (only your Internet Service Provider knows precisely who you are), and any other information you explicitly choose to provide (like if you opt in to Google’s Personalized Search and tell them your address and browsing history, for example), the company serving ads is able to bring you more targeted and relevant ads. The benefits to this are obvious: if you search for the word “bass,” for example, keeping logs of previous queries you’ve made will help Google decide whether you’re looking for something related to fish or something related to music.

And so the privacy concerns come in mostly in regard to a company like Google being able to “remember you” as you surf the web and encounter AdSense ads on sites in its content network, but also (inexplicably) for individuals who explicitly agree to share their personal information.

I’ll be the first to say that I have always been confused by the focus on things like this for the simple fact that, unless you give Google explicit permission to know who you are, all it can possibly know (or assume, rather), is that you are the same person who initiated the browsing session and that you live somewhere in New York City. Also, I’m baffled by the concept of a machine being able to invade your privacy by feeding random bits of data through some algorithm and automatically returning some response. Last I checked, a machine is not a person and can’t know anything about me unless I give it information. This is a deep philosophical question that I don’t believe we’re fully ready to grasp at this point in time, but is important to keep in mind as artificial intelligence inches closer to becoming a reality.

Anyway, I digress. Skepticism about privacy concerns aside, what about the proposed Do-Not-Track list is idiotic?

Well, unlike the Do-Not-Call list, being on this new list doesn’t mean you’ll be able to avoid ads. Actually, a quite negative side-effect of being on such a list is that you’ll encounter far more completely irrelevant ads while you browse from site to site. You can’t avoid them altogether (unless you’re willing to pay cash to view websites, and unless you’re crazy you aren’t going to want to do that), so it strikes me as counterproductive to opt in to being more annoyed by ads than you are likely to be if they have something to do with what you’re looking for or interested in. Seems dumb.

Additionally, it’s hard not to appreciate this irony: in order to be on this list, you have to tell these companies who you are. You are basically consenting to be tracked to the end of not being tracked. Yes, there’s a difference, I guess. But it works exactly the same way. As a matter of fact, it seems like being on the list works more like signing up for Personalized Search than the default cookie-storing and session-based behavior of search engines and ad networks. Of course, the people overseeing the list would never ever use it for evil. Right? Right?

In the end, comparing the Do Not Track list to the Do Not Call list is unfair and misleading. Unlike the DNC list, you’re not getting rid of anything by signing up for this one. The only way you benefit is if you have an irrational fear of companies like Google and a lack of understanding about how they operate and what information they collect. You’ll feel some peace of mind, I guess, but little else will change.

As I’ve said before, if you’re truly concerned about privacy, you should be looking at your Internet Service Provider, who knows far more about you and your online history than companies like Google ever could. These companies have your real name, address, phone number, credit card information, browsing and search and email history, p2p and BitTorrent activity, often also all incoming and outgoing phone calls, and your television-watching habits. Unlike Google, this information is stored in a far less transparent way. Google at least lets you see precisely what information it has about you and tries its hardest to resist handing over this information to the courts. Comcast and Optimum and Verizon and these folks keep everything to themselves, except when they feel like selling it to marketers and freely sharing it with the government.

In any event, watch this space. The FCC FTC is having a town hall meeting today about these very issues. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of it.

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