This conversation launched when Gmail announced its offline mode and has been swirling around: See Manjoo (summary: “Gmail is great!”), Mrgan (summary: “No drag and drop, blecch”), and now Alex Payne’s The Problem With Email Clients.

Web or Native? · We as a profession totally don’t have consensus about what is best delivered through a browser, what belongs in a native client, and whether there’s a space in between for “Rich Internet Applications”. I keep proposing that the difference is this: any application in which you might engage in creativity deserves a compiled native version. For me, email totally qualifies.

Having said that, Gmail is really very good, for what it is, and it’s important because of the new things it has brought to our conversation about how to send messages using a computer. I have two further pieces of evidence:

First, Alex remarks, as though it’s self-evident, that the Big Deal about Gmail is the way it does “conversations”. I’ll be honest; that hadn’t even occurred to me, and while I suppose it’s nice, wouldn’t pull me away from Mail.app, Thunderbird, or whatever. For me, the big deal about Gmail is the notion of “Archiving”; hit the “Y” key and the message is out of your face; but still back there somewhere in the cloud so you can find it later when you need it. I want this a dozen times a day when I’m using a “real” mailer.

Here’s the other anomaly. On my Android G1, there’s a “native” Gmail program and a Webkit-based browser. I stopped using the native version because it mis-used the network, wasted scarce storage space, and the browser version is really very good.

The Conclusion · Well, it’s obvious: Three decades into the life of email, we still haven’t figured out the best way to use it.



Contributions

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From: peter keane (Feb 08 2009, at 18:01)

I generally want more than one way to interact w/ my email -- sometimes Gmail, sometimes Mutt, sometimes Pine. Thankfully, Gmail supports imap (and now Mutt does, too), so it is in fact possible.

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From: Terry Jones (Feb 08 2009, at 18:04)

Hi Tim

I use 'A' (archive) all the time in VM, in emacs. It does the right thing - I have things set up so mail is stored in a file based on email address (and yes, there are collisions, but remarkably few, and you can adjust for them if you like). It's really nice. I never think about where or if to save messages, just hit 'A'. Sounds like 'Y' in gmail (which I don't use).

Virtual folders in VM are also extremely useful.

You might also like the combination of gmail and vimperator (which al3x got me onto). You can have firefox let you edit your emails in emacs (via emacsclient), which is excellent.

And I could of course say more :-)

Regards.

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From: Dustin (Feb 08 2009, at 18:05)

If you're using Mail.app on the desktop, check out the MailActOn plugin for a fast archiving tool.

http://www.indev.ca/MailActOn.html

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From: Phil Ringnalda (Feb 08 2009, at 18:41)

I hadn't realized quite how nice a thing archiving email was until we got it in trunk Thunderbird a week or two ago: going from "do I care about this, or should I never see it again?" to "do I care about this, or should I pretend I might look at it again" while reading a firehose of bugmail is a huge change. As long as our forthcoming magic search is as magic as promised, I'm looking forward to not envying Gmail.

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From: Jurgen Schaub (Feb 08 2009, at 19:03)

You said:

"For me, the big deal about Gmail is the notion of “Archiving”; hit the “Y” key and the message is out of your face; but still back there somewhere in the cloud so you can find it later when you need it. I want this a dozen times a day when I’m using a “real” mailer."

I've got a massive "Read Mail" folder, which works pretty much the same way as Gmail's archive feature. I whipped up a script in QuicKeys and AppleScript that tosses the selected message(s) into that folder when I want them out of my face. I used to have a few different "Read Mail" folders (to accommodate IMAP server pickyness), and the script would be smart enough to put the right email into the right folder.

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From: Hugh Emberson (Feb 08 2009, at 19:25)

I don't think Gmail's conversation feature is that good. In particular it falls apart in mailing lists where conversations often have a tree structure rather than a linear structure. GNUS is particularly good at this and Thunderbird is not bad. I suspect the only people who do like GMails conversation feature are former Outlook users.

The thing I find interesting is that no desktop email client has copied Gmail's tag and archive idea. Once you have grokked it, it seems like the only way.

My wife recently had the tag and archive epiphany when she realized that you can apply multiple tags to a conversation and that conversation would show up in both "folders". To achieve the same result on Outlook, she would forward of an email to herself and then drag each copy into a separate folder. Then she'd repeat the process for any followups. She's stopped asking me to install Outlook now.

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From: John Cowan (Feb 08 2009, at 19:36)

What on earth do you do with Pine that you can't do with Mutt (except read mail on a host that has Pine but not Mutt installed, I suppose)?

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From: Tony Fisk (Feb 08 2009, at 20:04)

My take: the email sits on g-mail (or squirrel mail or whatever), and therefore doesn't necessarily require downloading. It is also accessible wherever you are... some of us have home and work computers.

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From: David Reese (Feb 08 2009, at 20:07)

Completely agree that "y" is the best thing about gmail. I recently "upgraded" (?) to Thunderbird 3 beta, which killed the "Gmail UI" extension that gives me the "y" shortcut. Mail started piling up in my inbox, which made me increasingly tense. So i spent 3 hours fixing the extension so I could have my "y" back.

Of course, for some reason my search is now completely buggered, responding to my queries with seemingly random messages. I don't mind so much, though, because I probably did it.

I have a feeling that's why desktop clients appeal more to hackers -- they're easier to hack. Thunderbird extension hacking pales in comparison to those who use emacs or vim to read their mail...

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From: J. King (Feb 08 2009, at 20:09)

Read-and-forget archiving of mail is what drew me to using mail in Opera back in 2003, and indeed it's what convinced me to start taking e-mail seriously in the first place. It is, for me, the -only- way to organise mail. No doubt about it. For that reason I commend Gmail for taking the same approach, and I'm glad it is as a consequence reaching more people.

Still, I far prefer a native client---even though for me it ends up actually being the same software. I don't know that I could tell you why exactly I prefer native UI, though. Maybe I feel more secure about a dedicated mail UI being fault-tolerant? Even though Gmail saves drafts, it's still the Web at its core, and this brings to mind volatility as a matter of course.

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From: karl (Feb 08 2009, at 20:21)

I guess I'm not the right person for Webmail. I don't fit into it. Let's see. I'm using Apple Mail but in a very different way than many people around me. I have explained it in French. (see below for the link) If I remember well, I completely changed my way of managing my email, maybe 3/4 years ago.

Summary:

1. I'm not using INBOX nor category folders for my mail.

2. I have my mail for more than 15 years in my imap hierarchy.

3. I have a procmail rule on the server which archive every single mail in a monthly dated space.

4. My access to mailing-lists, people, or specific topic is entirely done through… *smart* mailboxes aka dynamic views on the information. (which means that one message can be in different contexts)

Since I have done this, I have never been worried about my mail anymore.

http://www.la-grange.net/2008/03/26/organiser-courrier

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From: Nicola Larosa (Feb 08 2009, at 22:32)

Yes, archiving is a big deal.

My weapon of choice is the QuickFile extension of Thunderbird. My email archive a *very* wide and deep tree, and while I loathe hierarchies as much as the next guy, QuickFile at least lets me put mail away with a few keystrokes.

And lots of filters help, too.

Nonetheless I'd like to wean myself off of Thunderbird somehow, it's just that QuickFix, ehm, QuickFile holding me back. :-)

Probably the answer to this, and a few other conundrums, is the same: emacs. If only it was somewhat more usable...

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From: Devdas Bhagat (Feb 09 2009, at 01:50)

Gmail uses the Subject: line for conversations. This breaks whenever you have the same subject crop up, or when the subject in a thread changes.

The "right" way to implement this is via the "In-Reply-To:" and "References:" headers, which works very well across Thunderbird, Kmail and mutt.

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From: Arnaud (Feb 09 2009, at 03:07)

Postbox (which I just discovered this week-end) has the archiving feature you mention. It seems that the search function to back it up is pretty good though I have only been using it for a couple of hours.

Worth a shot, based on mozilla so users of thunderbird will feel at home

http://www.postbox-inc.com/

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From: Bob Aman (Feb 09 2009, at 06:47)

You know, I've never really felt like email was a significant creative endeavor. Communications medium, yes, but I'm not going to be writing the next Great American Novel in my email client. For me, email is quick and dirty, and that's probably why I'm happy with a web client. That and I've never found a native email client that was fast enough for my tastes.

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From: ed nixon (Feb 09 2009, at 13:28)

I was talking with a buddy yesterday about Google Analytics, but I think similar issues arise with Gmail or any other server store system: where is your data and who controls it? My buddy is a public servant in the Government of Canada so this is a very important question if the system is being used for 'business' maybe less so for personal use, but still... I've been around long enough to know how quickly things can change and how far they can move in that short time. Which is all to say, whatever functionality you like or find convenient isn't going to be much use if someone who shouldn't be is reading you over your shoulder.

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From: Michael H. (Feb 09 2009, at 19:59)

I don't understand Alex Payne's "Gmail gave us conversations" piece. I read through email threads related by subject in Eudora all the time. In Apple's Mail, I have the "organize by thread" option on, so it collects and presents messages that way. What's new here?

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From: Alex Morega (Feb 10 2009, at 07:21)

"The Conclusion · Well, it’s obvious: Three decades into the life of email, we still haven’t figured out the best way to use it."

There is no best way to use e-mail. It's an open, solid protocol with some flaws (e.g. spamability) and many implementations. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised it works well at all. And it's not like it hasn't evolved in those 30 years.

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From: Christopher (Feb 11 2009, at 23:33)

@Michael H.

The handling. e.g. archive one message, you archive the whole thread. label a message yu label the whole thread. when a new message arrives, it automaticalle de-archives the whole thread. and so on.

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From: Austin Cheney (Feb 13 2009, at 10:21)

I read the article and was disappointed. There are many flaws directly attributed to data confined in email, additional problems when considering webmail, and still further more granular problems concerning the communication of that data between various user agent software at various stages.

Articles like these lead me to believe that people are so extensively used to being disappointed by email that any opportunity to no longer be deathly depressed must be considered a victory. This sort of equivocation actually does more harm than good by affirming a status quo that is beyond question. Nothing in networking or the internet is beyond question.

Hopefully this blind affirmation will go away when I submit Mail Markup Language to the IETF. Hopefully email will become XML based as a result and in doing so will become efficient, meaningful, and organized entirely on its own. This is really not too much to hope for since MML is invented, works as expected, and is open to change.

Email, as any communication, is a conversation. We do not need software to tell this to us if the technology exists to properly describe and deliver that communication. If people were to put their attention towards improving technology to benefit human behavior instead of creating an interaction to encourage a behavioral response we would all be in a better place. Maybe MML will be a step towards attaining that solution.

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From: William Loughborough (Mar 02 2009, at 17:00)

Just a cautionary note. Some of us don't live in areas where the stuff quickly pops up quickly because there's no "broadband" service except the really absurd satellite feed.

Not only am I trapped because the latency is more restrictive of a problem than the bandwidth when surfing, with all the attendant handshakes, but even when all that is working OK, one suddenly discovers that the gmail server is apparently down and they've got all your stuff there.

When it works it's great but...

I've even taken to using my SmartPhone as a modem and there are times when it's faster than the satellite! And it doesn't reach "G3" quality this far from everything.

And to think that the google servers are probably only about 30 miles from here but last week I had to undergo a captcha embarrassment just to do a routine search!

Love.

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