Apple Mail and format=flowed

There’s one thing that the Apple Mail client gets right which I’ve never seen anything else try to do – the way it formats messages. Most mail clients seem to offer plain text and HTML as user selectable options and do exactly what they’re told regardless of the content of the message. If HTML is enabled they always send a mail with both text/plain and text/html renditions of the message. Normally the plain text version is a fixed, 80 column version. This is wasteful of bandwidth, especially since very few users actually use any formatting at all, and means that mail programs that don’t do HTML have to treat the mails as though the fixed layout the sending system chooses is important even when it results in poor layout (for example, on mobile devices with small screens).

What Apple Mail does here is to only enable the more complex formatting options if they add information that can’t be represented in the less complex formats. By default mails are sent in text/plain with the format=flowed option to let the reader know it can safely reflow the text and no HTML alternative is generated. If something that can’t be represented using format=flowed is included in the message then a HTML alternative is generated – transparently and without user intervention.

This is good partly because it’s nice to see format=flowed used, it’s a nice technical solution to the problem, but mostly because it’s great user interface design. Most Apple Mail users will never notice if it is or isn’t generating HTML e-mail, they’ll just see that it’s doing what they expect and won’t have to deal with an option that they probably don’t understand or have much of a view on. Other users won’t be troubled with HTML generated by Apple Mail users unless there is some content in the formatting. It’d be good to see more MUAs implementing similar behavior, at least optionally.

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