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People entering college today have never known a world without an Internet. HTML was invented 1980, that's more than thirty years ago or 1.5 generations.

But plain text mails are still common despite all their problems:

  • Encoding issues
  • Wrapped code segments
  • No links
  • No way to use the "a picture says more than a thousand words" lore

Most of the security risks are now handled by the underlying browser engine and smart settings like:

  • Don't allow JavaScript in mails
  • Don't execute attachments
  • Don't download external resources (like web bugs)

On top of that, only very few people still read mail only in command line tools like Mutt. Knowing Mutt myself, I'm pretty sure you can configure it to display HTML mail with, say, w3m. On top of that, most HTML mail capable clients send two versions of the mail (pure text with an HTML attachment).

I'm not sure if there are any people left on the planet which still use a 56kbit modem to access their mail accounts.

So what reasons are left to stick with plain text mails in 2011?

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closed as not constructive by Kez, Ƭᴇcʜιᴇ007, ChrisF, random Mar 20 '11 at 16:39

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HTML rendering in most email clients REALLY sucks (like, take IE6 and then take a hammer to it in most cases). Besides, most use rich text, complete with pictures anyway (since people like emoticons quite a lot) –  Trezoid Mar 20 '11 at 12:42
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1. I'm not aware of any encoding issues with UTF-8 2. Code which has to be wrapped is badly written anyway 3. Links (URLs) are just text. 4. You can attach images and refer to them in the message body. –  artistoex Mar 20 '11 at 13:57
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Many, many people still use 56k accesses. Not in big cities in developed countries, but in plenty of other places, they do =) –  CFP Mar 20 '11 at 15:07
    
One generation is 30 years. –  Wok Mar 20 '11 at 15:58
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You should also question the fact that we still use the mail protocol in 2011. I don't mean to use facebook or another message interface, but text communication really has to evolve... –  jokoon Mar 20 '11 at 16:40

5 Answers 5

Simple: Speed and efficiency.

Some people still care about the amount of bandwidth and disk space they use. HTML emails add a huge amount of extra bulk to what is a very simple messaging system.

For example, if you email someone the message "Hi, are you coming to the pub tonight?", in plain text, it just sends the headers plus that text. If you sent it as HTML it sends the headers, the MIME wrapping, the message as plain text and the message wrapped up in HTML. That's quite a large amount of data for what is a very small message.

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I know several people who have 20+ GiB mailboxes full of really important mails that can't be deleted. I myself have currently 8160 mails. Using HTML for mails is going to have negative impact on storage space available. –  AndrejaKo Mar 20 '11 at 12:02
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Hm, I don't think that most people even know the difference between HTML and plain text mail. And if they do, they won't prefer plain text over HTML just because of the size of the mails. Storage is cheap and I'd rather delete an old episode of a TV series I downloaded or some random pictures than send a zillion mails in plain text just to save space (on my hard drive, that is). –  slhck Mar 20 '11 at 12:04
    
@slhck Storage is NOT cheap. It may seem cheap, but it definitely isn't. Keep in mind that lot of people with large amount of mail will probably want to have mailboxes on servers (and that storage costs!) and may need to have multiple backups available at all times for mails and so on. The costs quickly raise, if yo0ur living depends on having large mail archives. –  AndrejaKo Mar 20 '11 at 12:11
    
@AndrejaKo I know what you are talking about, in the company that I work in we also have people with 20 gigs of mail, but those sizes are mostly due to the habit of sending attachments, I can't imagine the reason being the HTML overhead. –  slhck Mar 20 '11 at 12:18
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@AndrejaKo: Most people don't understand what you mean by "size". :-) They have no idea how much space the letter 'a' needs in a text file. They will create a mail, drag C:\ into it as an attachment and then complain that the idiots from IT created a system that can't handle a simple 700MB email! Size only matters in viagra spam. Or to put it another way: We're a minority. Humanity couldn't care less. Mail has to work, details don't matter. If it's slow, then it's your fault, not theirs. Because you should have known better. :-) –  Aaron Digulla Mar 20 '11 at 19:47

There are several reasons and some of them may be:

Compatibility! For example many mobile phone mail clients will not render HTML mail properly. Also you can't assume that the person reading the mail will want (or be able) to have installed software which will work fine with HTML mail. Another point I've seen are mailing lists. I've had problems in the past with mailing list servers not recognizing HTML mail correctly.

Habit: Why use HTML mail if you don't need to use it? It does not if fact bring any advantages to simple textual communication. If you don't need anything other than simple text communication, why bother.

Money: Internet may be charged by time or amount of transfered data. HTML mail is more expensive.

Transfer speeds: I challenge your fax modem statement. In fact I claim that there are more users of fax modems and other slow Internet connections (such as GPRG or EDGE) than broadband users. Just because you ma not be in contact with them does not mean that there aren't any.

Time: Why would I want to wait 10+ seconds to read HTML e-mail on my phone if I can get same message using plain-text for 1 second?

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Uh. @Aaron never mentioned fax modems. –  grawity Mar 20 '11 at 12:17
    
@ grawity Let me quote then: I'm not sure if there are any people left on the planet which still use a 56kbit modem to access their mail accounts. I suppose they could be using 56k DSL modems or running GPRS or whatever at 56k, but 56k is currently highest standard fax modem speed. –  AndrejaKo Mar 20 '11 at 12:21
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@AndrejaKo: How about a standard dial-up modem at 56 kbps? It's not fax. –  grawity Mar 20 '11 at 12:44
    
@grawity The standard modem for dial-up is fax modem –  AndrejaKo Mar 20 '11 at 12:54
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@AndrejaKo: From the page: "Some, but not all, fax modems do double duty as data modems." –  grawity Mar 20 '11 at 12:58

There are a lot of reasons against HTML (or better: for plain-text) e-mail.

  • Storage size: I am subscribed to several medium-to-high-volume mailing lists. All my email is stored with my provider and I access it via IMAP. The IMAP folder of one of these lists has 7200 messages with 125MB, another folder with another list has 19000 messages with 128MB. Guess which one is plain text, and which is annoying as hell HTML without adding anything of value (remember, people send to the list in plain text!).

    AFAIK (IANAL) German law dictates that all business related email is to be archived for at least 10 years, including all attachments and formatting. Nobody cares about an additional kilobyte in a single email, but over the time of ten years? Storage can be a real issue.

  • Readability: Mail clients allow me to configure how my email is displayed regarding font, sizes, etc. While it's possible to override HTML settings, it's much less convenient. Pretty much any applications allows configuration of plain-text size and font though.

    Not all email is displayed on fancy Windows/Linux/Mac computers. Think of mobile devices -- in large parts of the USA and Europe, using them for email is finally affordable. But they don't run Windows Outlook 2010 -- but a far more limited viewer.

    Power users might grow accustomed to their font settings and will not like everything that unnecessarily takes charge to change how email is displayed. And: you wouldn't believe how many people think Comic Sans (which admittedly has its uses) is an appropriate font for everything they write.

  • Compatibility: If you don't send me primitive stone-age email from your Outlook, I'll receive a winmail.dat file I cannot conveniently open. Attachments are pretty much lost unless I use relatively unknown decoding utilities. Another issue is that more and more users also read email on mobile devices, now that they're capable enough for that, but not quite capable enough to handle proprietary formats and extensions.

  • Email client functionality: Email clients might be capable enough to display which emails have attachments (useful when searching for one), but they might not recognize inline images as "non-attachments". Nothing's more fun than searching for an email with attachments from someone who sends every single email with an attachment, e.g. company logo or a similar waste of bandwidth.

  • No additional value: There's simply almost never any additional value. I don't give a damn about your company logo (and if I do, there's a press section on your web site with high-resolution print images), your light-gray-on-dark-gray "wallpaper" email background (with a lighter gray as text color), and pretty much anything else you can do to mess up my email experience. There's attachments, and capable mail clients can convert text URLs to clickable links. No reason to hide the link target behind a non-descriptive title.


For all these reasons, it's in your own best interest to send plain email. It's easier on the recipient, and you want them to actually read your email. There's too damn much email around for most people to read what you sent with the attention it deserves in cases like

  • it won't load on the train because the content requires an internet connection
  • recipient can't read it because he needs to get stronger glasses
  • it won't display on my phone
  • etc.
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+1 I read the question and this is what came to my mind. –  matthias krull Mar 20 '11 at 14:05
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+1 for the link target :D –  fabian789 Mar 20 '11 at 15:29
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The company logo is not the only problem. 3 page long signature with juristic information are also very bad and work also with plain text. –  Horcrux7 Mar 20 '11 at 16:48
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@Aaron 1. Possible, but as you see, not everyone as infinite storage for free. 2. Depends on your software. My computer mail client unbreaks 80 character lines if the window is larger, and my phone mail client breaks them at fewer characters. You don't need HTML for that. Anyway, these arguments are the best I can offer. I can respect the decision for HTML mail in some cases, but especially for person-to-person communication, I strongly favor plain mail, for the mentioned reasons. –  Daniel Beck Mar 21 '11 at 15:11

I've got different, non-technical reasons.

I hate when an email in HTML uses different font that I am accustomed to. I read hundreds of emails daily, and this is just ugly when each email tries to force me to different font.

And I hate when I cannot easily reply to an email, with my comments referring to specific parts of an email. I click reply, then I get a mess of formatting because you cannot easily turn HTML into citation without breaking it.

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+1 for the reply problem. Though people who write HTML emails usually don't properly quote either... –  sleske Mar 20 '11 at 14:47
    
+1 for this one. HTML mail editors simply suck. On the usability scale, they come close to flint stones and torture devices. I always struggle where to click to add a new line or to get rid of parts that I don't want in my reply. Either I delete too much or the editor decides "if you delete that character, I'm upset and delete the rest of the mail! So there." –  Aaron Digulla Mar 20 '11 at 19:44

All the above. Plus this one:

Most HTML email is spam. Most text mail is not spam. By which I don't mean spam as in the "I didn't sign up for this newsletter" stuff, but the actual, real, high volume viagra and "You'll have to drill a hole in your ceiling so you can lie on your back after taking our new wonderdrug" stuff uses HTML and images to try to get around text-based spam detection methods, so as a direct result most hiristic and more traditional rules-based spam detection systems will automatically mark you down a couple of points at least for being HTML (more so the more complicated you make the message). You can regain this by being from a trusted mail server, sending to the right address, and not being a spammer (the simple methods are often the best), but if you really need the message to get though, do you need anything but text?

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I agree that today most of it is spam but is that a reason not to use it? Sounds more like "submit to the spammers" instead of "let's give 'em hell" :-/ –  Aaron Digulla Mar 20 '11 at 19:41

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