Mail’s hegemony

In recent times there’s been a lively debate about email in general. The gist of it — it seems — is that email is a venerable communication medium that has to be ‘refreshed’ somehow since we cannot get rid of it. It appears that a lot of nerds are overwhelmed by email management, and since evidently it’s too complicated to review or perfect how one manages email, it’s the medium that has to be ‘adjusted’ to be more convenient. So, new clients have appeared, and new approaches to email have been attempted to ‘optimise the concept’ and to ‘bring email to the 21st century.’

To use the phrase Calling bullshit is perhaps a bit too much, but picture me scoffing at the very least.

Email: deal with it

There’s no way around it: email is messages you receive, messages you write, and replies to messages you receive. When you receive a lot of emails and want to get it over with as soon as possible, you either ignore all non-essential or top-priority messages, or you get someone else to act as a secretary. I don’t believe there’s a software solution to make your email life much easier, unless we’re talking about something that sends pre-packaged answers, which is just horrible, at least for someone like me who values correspondence. You just have to Stop whining and deal with it.

Software-wise, you can mix things up all you like, you can pretend emails are status updates, or to-do items to act upon, GTD projects, etc., and you can come up with clients that emphasise this aspect or the other in the software’s interface, but in the end, again, email means message management, thus there has to be a part of the UI dedicated to show message lists, default and custom email folders, a single-message area inside the main application window, and a Compose Message window/pane/sheet.

And that’s why, while my interest is piqued every time a new email client is introduced, I always return to Mail.app.

My path to Mail

I came to email rather late. I opened my first email account in 1999. At the time, my main machine was a blueberry iMac G3/350 with Mac OS 8.6. My browser of choice was Netscape Communicator 4.x, and its Mail & News module was also what I used for email and Usenet newsgroups. And let me tell you, Netscape handled email and newsgroups quite well, at least for my needs. So well, in fact, that I kept using it as an email and Usenet client for as late as 2002. In late 2001 I had upgraded my iMac from Mac OS 8.6 to Mac OS X 10.1, and started using Mail.app as secondary email client, to get accustomed to it and also because by then I had more than just one email account, and with Netscape Messenger things could get tricky if you had multiple accounts.

Soon I realised that Mail.app’s user interface wasn’t so different from Netscape Messenger’s, so I migrated all email to Mail, and kept using Netscape Messenger for handling Usenet newsgroups until 2004, when I finally switched to a Mac OS X native app, Unison by Panic Inc.

Migrating three years of email messages from Netscape Messenger to Apple’s Mail was less painful than I’d anticipated. And this particular software lock-in began. But I’ve always been okay with that.

Years have passed, the number of email accounts has grown, and my email archive has got bigger and bigger, which means that changing email client at this point would involve a complex migration of tens of thousands of messages split among a dozen accounts. Since all the email accounts I opened before the advent of Gmail didn’t offer much space on the provider’s servers, I’ve been a heavy user of the POP3 protocol over the years, using IMAP only with Apple’s @mac.com accounts and all the accounts I opened in the Gmail era. I still use POP3 for some accounts, and for those my email client of choice is Mailsmith because it handles email backup in a solid way, and because it’s a powerful, versatile, no-nonsense client all around.

Those who know me well, know that I love testing and trying web browsers, and over time I’ve often changed my default browser to experiment with new offerings or projects. But email has always been a more delicate matter for me. I’ve managed to preserve my email archive (15 years’ worth of messages), and ironically the only part missing of such archive is a window of a few months — from late 2004 to early 2005 — which I lost when an attempt to migrate to Mozilla Thunderbird went unexpectedly very wrong and resulted in the corruption of hundreds of messages I was unable to recover.

Sticking with Mail

But the reason I’m sticking with Mail.app on the Mac isn’t just about my resistance to change email client because I’m afraid to lose my precious archives. With a few careful backups, a bit of patience, and a quiet weekend, I could move all my accounts to another application. The truth is that I still haven’t seen a third-party client groundbreaking enough to make me leave Mail.app behind. Using a secondary Gmail IMAP account, I have indeed tried clients such as Postbox, Mailplane, Airmail, Mailbox for Mac, and I was also interested in seeing what kind of client would result from the .Mail project by Tobias van Schneider, but it seems that the project didn’t go anywhere eventually.

For all this talking about ‘revolutionising’ email, I still haven’t encountered a revolutionary client capable of winning me over. But mind you, this isn’t anybody’s fault, either! The fact is, it’s not an easy task — you can make an email client with a nice UI, you can make an email client that follows a certain concept and have its UI rejiggered accordingly but, like I said before, email’s core is always there: messages you receive, messages you send, and, in general, messages to manage.

All the third-party clients I’ve tried are nice applications and admirable efforts, I’m certainly not belittling anybody’s work here, but ultimately they lack enough gravitational pull to convince me to fully switch. Mail.app is a solid client I’ve been using since 2001 and, believe it or not, I never had a serious issue with it; the worst that has happened was to force quit it in those (rare) cases it had become unresponsive — but Mail has never lost any data. At the end of the day, Mail does everything I need: any change at this point would be just for change’s sake.

Sparrow

To be fair, there was a client that almost pulled me away from Mail, back in 2011: Sparrow [Wikipedia entry | Main website]. I tried it since the early beta versions, and I was really liking the path it was taking. It didn’t want to revolutionise email, just be a lightweight, efficient application. Too bad Google poisoned the well by acquiring it in July 2012 and basically stopping any further meaningful development. You can still purchase it — both the Mac and iOS version — and if you’re looking for a nice and lightweight email client on the Mac I’m tempted to still recommend it (on the iPhone, regrettably, its UI has remained like it was under iOS 6, so it’s a nice alternative only if you’re still using an iPhone 3GS or an iPhone 4 that hasn’t been updated to iOS 7). I’ve managed to retain the last version of Sparrow that could run on PowerPC Macs and it’s my default client on my older PowerBooks because it just feels faster and lighter than Mail on those systems.

Mobile

Mobile is a more flexible environment to create useful, original, more efficient alternatives to iOS’s Mail. Mailbox, Dispatch, Triage are the first third-party apps with an interesting approach that come to mind, plus there are decent email apps such as CloudMagic, Evomail+ or Molto, just to name a few. Smartphones and tablets are a different story, and the Multi-touch interface, the portable size of the devices, the different user-interface and user-interaction paradigms, in my opinion, offer more room for improvement or simply for trying more daring approaches to email management (e.g. an email client tailored to the smaller screen of a smartphone can focus on the triaging part of the process, and provide an optimised interface for the task, so that the triaging part becomes truly quicker, thus expediting email management).

For me it’s also easier to try different email clients on my iPhone and iPad because I don’t need to bring my whole email archive with me, nor do I need to handle all my email accounts while I’m out and about. I only monitor three main accounts, they’re all IMAP, so syncing is a breeze in case I’m trying out another email application.

And what about the new Inbox project by Google?

I’m moving away from Gmail, progressively closing and deleting all the accounts I’ve opened over the years. The hardest part is figuring out the services I’ve tied a certain Gmail account to, or if I’ve set up a certain Gmail account to act as a recovery account in case something goes wrong with yet another email account, so that I can change settings accordingly. So, as you can imagine, I’m not interested in Inbox in the least.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!