The last couple of months have seen some exciting announcements, which look set to change email development forever.
Gmail now supports media queries
Google has started the process of releasing a number of updates for its family of email apps online, as well as its dedicated Android and iOS apps. These updates will not only bring it into the 21st century and allow email designers to have more control over how their messages are rendered, but it will vastly improve Gmail’s ability to render CSS style rules in HTML emails and ensure that CSS styles are not stripped out.
One of the benefits of this is that CSS rules can be defined once and will cascade automatically to the correct elements when rendering, just like CSS was always designed to do and how it’s worked in web browsers since the late 90s. Developers have previously had to ‘inline’ style rules on to every individual element in order make emails look any good for Gmail users, leading to bloated, difficult-to-read code. While developers will likely still need to inline styles for a while (there are still email clients that don’t render styles in <style> tags reliably), this latest news hints at a future where inlining isn’t necessary, taking one of the more ‘trickier’ steps out of the email development process (different inlining tools work in subtly different ways, as do automated inliners built into apps such as Mailchimp and Campaign Monitor).
The second benefit of this is that it will be possible to use @media queries within <style> tags to adjust the styling of an email to suit the user's current device. In recent years, email developers have had to develop entirely new solutions for optimising the layout of emails in Gmail and other mobile email apps without @media query support. The most popular of these solutions is known as ‘fluid-hybrid design’. Andy even developed and shared his own version of the technique to help developers apply it more easily. But even when simplified, in comparison with standard ‘responsive design’ techniques, fluid-hybrid is far trickier to master and comes with its own set of quirks and limitations.
While there are still plenty of other email apps without @media query support, Gmail is by far the most popular (with a huge 16% market share), so Google’s planned changes mean a drastic reduce in the need for fluid-hybrid. Whether that means it will fade into complete obscurity, remains to be seen. As long as it remains useful for targeting other less-capable email apps, fluid-hybrid may still have a future.
Litmus partners with Microsoft
Litmus announced in August that it was partnering with Microsoft to ensure that future versions of Outlook would give email developers and users a better time.
Microsoft Outlook (in all its guises, from Outlook 2003, right to up to the new Outlook.com) has always been a ‘thorn’ in the side of email developers all over the world. Having to use the Microsoft Word rendering engine to render HTML emails throws up all kinds of unique and complicated bugs for developers to work around, meaning that they have to code HTML emails using tables for layout - just like they did in the 90s. It has always been the weak link of the email world, making it incredibly difficult for the industry to move forward, so hopefully Google’s latest news could change everything!
While developers will still be tied to creating emails that work in older iterations of Outlook for a while (we can’t forget about those users just yet - every recipient is important), it’s certainly good news that Microsoft is now listening to email developers, and at least intend to make things better for them in future.
Email as a marketing tool has seen unprecedented growth over recent years, but these announcements signify a shift in attitude by the big players of the email industry. This means that email developers can hopefully spend less time trying to solve abstract rendering bugs and spend more time creating beautifully designed, engaging experiences for more recipients.
There are still plenty of other email app developers out there that aren’t yet prioritising the same things, but with Gmail and Outlook aligning their attitudes with Apple (the Mail app that comes with iOS, which has had fantastic support for modern CSS and media queries for years), industry standards are set at a level that other developers simply cannot afford to ignore.
In the words of 1993 UK chart-toppers D:Ream, “Things can only get better!”.