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Video in Email – Part One

August 24, 2011

Back in July, Hotmail announced that they now supported HTML 5 which includes the new video tag. Therefore I decided it was time to investigate (again !) the possibility of embedding video in the content of an email. In the past there have been a number of paid services that have offered to send emails with video content but the big problem has always been support in all the major email clients and the issue of wanting to send the email on your own IP address with the good reputation that you have been working on for such a long time.

My starting point was to use the html video code generated from the video for everyone generator and simply load it into a HTML 5 compatible browser and see what happens.

As you can see from the image above, the poster image is displayed and a control bar is shown to allow the user to start and stop the video as required. Next, I tried sending an embedded video email from Outlook to my Hotmail account. The first problem was how do you paste raw HTML into an Outlook 2010 message ? Answer, if you view a html page in a browser you can copy and paste the page into your message. However, when I copied and pasted the above into Outlook then nothing happened. Then it suddenly occurred to me what the problem was. Outlook 2010 doesn't support HTML 5 so it doesn't know about the video element.

As a sanity check I decided to send a video email from messenger to my Outlook email client. And sure enough, the video tag was completely ignored and just the download video links are shown. This is a problem as even the fallback image in the video tag isn't displayed. So, I needed to add another image to the code so that users with an email client that doesn't support HTML 5 will still see the fallback image and have an idea on the content of the video.

<img alt="Big Buck Bunny" src="http://sandbox.thewikies.com/vfe-generator/images/big-buck-bunny_poster.jpg" width="640" height="360" title="No video playback capabilities, please download the video below" />

The above image is placed just inside the closed </video> tag and now in Outlook you can see the fallback image and use the links below it to download the video if you are interested. So, a small step forward ... very small step.

We know that Hotmail now supports HTML 5 so I sent exactly the same message to my Hotmail account and then viewed the message in different browsers to see the effect. First I tried IE 9, the browser in which you would expect to get the best results. Surprisingly the results aren't great.

As you can see the poster image isn't displayed and the only way you know its a video waiting to be played is if you right click to display the contextual play menu. So what has happened to the video controls. Reading the specification for the video element in HTML 5 it says that if the control attribute is present then the user interface should display an interface to control the video. Maybe we will have better look with Firefox 6.

As you can see it is slightly better. The poster image is displayed but again there is no interface to control the video unless you get the contextual menu. The same is true for Opera 11.5. In Safari 5.1 you get the poster image but there is no way to get the video to play at all. This was a little strange since the Apple website clearly says that Safari 5.1 supports the video element. Maybe the video formats available aren't supported ? This isn't the case since the html file plays correctly. The problem is that Safari doesn't have the contextual menu on a right click so no play control.

The video element does however have an "autoplay" attribute which, if set, should tell the browser to start playing the video as soon as possible. I added autoplay="true" to my test message and looked at the results in the same four browsers.
All of the browsers automatically started to play the video as soon as the message was viewed !

So what does this tell us ? It looks like Hotmail have disabled the video controls in an attempt to try to get people to autoplay their video in emails. What other reason could they have ? Embedding video is a pretty new technique so its hard to judge how people will react when the video starts to play on opening an email. Its pretty cool but also quite intrusive and the recipient should really be given the option. However, in that case there is not much difference between having an image which links to the video and using the new video element with a play button. The video is still only one click away.

Next week I'll take a look other email accounts such as Yahoo and AOL and see how they support the video element.

Posted by Simon Hill

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