Isn’t It Time Someone Re-Invented The Email Client?

Changes which don’t cause an uproar, tend not to be changes radical enough to represent a significant leap forward.

Back in 1977, when I was unable to walk or speak but had dribbling down to a fine art, Ken Olson the then President and Founder of DEC while discussing the looming inevitability of the “personal computer” famously said:

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

This tends to be the way when you truly re-invent the wheel or change the status quo – people disagree with you.

Google re-invented web mail with an invite only GMail service in 2004. Dumping folders in favour of “labels” garnered fans and foes alike; but by 2007 when it switched to open signup, with 1GB storage to sweeten the deal, GMail had created true disciples.

GMail in very early form, being used inside Google. Note the 2001 copyright. GMail has thankfully evolved since this early "Supercalc meets dial-up BBS" birth.

For years I used Microsoft Outlook. Fond of it and despising it in equal measure, through corrupted .pst files (the proprietary format used to store Outlook data) and navigating the perils of discovering each email folder had a limit of 16,000 emails (or total .pst file size of only 2GB) I formed an akward alliance with this queen of email clients.

As MS Office 1995 grew, eventually to Office 11, I saw the bloatware nature of Outlook become intolerable. I’m sure if Microsoft simply focused on building a version of Office which was faster, simpler and easier (with no functionality “improvements”) I’m sure everyone would buy it. This approach was not to be and instead arrived a new “ribbon” UI, a longer load time and other needless paraphernalia, spurning me to finally divorce.

Outlook 95 (left) nice and simple, Outlook 11 (right). Essentially the basics are the same; maybe that's the problem? The simplicity of form cluttered by the ever spiraling expansion of function. Click to get a larger image.

I needed a better, speedier email client. The bottox pumped  lipstick laden Cougar that is Microsoft Outlook no longer had a place on my Windows 7 notepad PC. Plastic surgery, elegantly attempted by Xobni and others, was not going to fix this the aged Outlook dame.

After considerable searching (and disregarding the slimmer but equally middle-aged alternatives such as Opera and even Mac Mail, which I trialled while I experimented with a MacBook Pro for a few weeks) I spotted Miss Mozilla Thunderbird.

Poised elegantly at the metaphorical bar, she said that she was good but that her younger sister (Version 3.o) was even sexier and that we should meet. With Lookout style instant search and a host of other features, she seemed to be the girl of the moment. Popular, with plenty of developers providing add-ons and fashionable, being from the Mozilla family being open source and free, thus ideologically sound.

POP to IMAP

In truth I really gave Thunderbird a good go. We had multiple dates and after the conversion to IMAP from the .PST format went smoothly, we almost moved in together; but a few weeks in the romance started to falter.

I battled on for a while, but bugs in the search, the folder handling (and possibly an ill-advised switch to IMAP at the same time, because the cloud is the future, right?) meant our honeymoon period didn’t last.

Thunderbird, cute as she was, hung and was too slow. We divorced.

If In Doubt, Sleep With Her Cousin

I’ve since tried PostBox; Thunderbird’s supposedly more intelligent cousin. A streamlined offering based on the same software engine, I was initially impressed. I even splashed out and paid to hang out with her. Then a week or two in bugs appeared in an upgrade (and the disappearance of my 10 years of sent email, which she has refused to give back) has left me frustrated.

More about Postbox

There were also some other problems with managing local folders and the UI to do so, switching between local and remote email folders. Some of these were addressesed in recent updates with a combined inbox, but it is still slow and clunky. If an IMAP folder goes awry, the only solution is to redownload it from the server. Not trusting GMails IMAP implementation and label/folder botch, this isn’t ideal.

I probably need to throw some time at rebuilding some IMAP folders & bla to retrieve the lost email (I hope), and to give Postbox her due, the support from Postbox Inc was excellent; but IMAP syncing with GMail is slow, the software seems unresponsive with the 1000’s of emails I have. It just doesn’t “feel” quite right.

In Rolls The Cloud

The problems of Postbox found me resorting to web mail until I sorted the problems out. Having switched recently to using my GMail address and aggregating my accounts there, this meant I was forced to comes to terms with the GMail interface. In short, I’ve been turned… I think.

Filing into folders, even drag and dropping, suddenly seems work I shouldn’t need to do. Applying a label seems easier. Trusting that having everything lumped into labels and that I’ll be able to retrieve it through search, takes adjustment though.

The Biggest Problem With GMail

One can’t escape that cloud based computing has it’s problems. I’ve lost as many document through dodgy connections, weird browser querks or other issues, while editing in the cloud.  GMail has a good “real-time” interface when you’re on a fast connection, but there are problems when managing large amounts of data.

My data is my life!

Already, thanks to a Google Blackberry Software Sync querk, I have lost the last 2 years of meetings, scheduled events and travels, which were sitting in my Blackberry and on my Google Calender, until they synced and threw away everything prior to the last 3 months.

Twice, Google Contacts Sync has duplicated or crashed and lost contacts. Do people coding this stuff not realise these types of services have to be truly bullet proof?

The problem is I still want a local version of my email. I want to know it is mine, safe, “there”. I want to edit, rearrange and browse it when I’m not online. The GMail offline mode (incompatible with Gmail multiple login) doesn’t suffice and isn’t really a sufficiently robust solution.

Moving in to GMail

Transferring reliably IN to GMail is a massive headache. I have a 7 GB .PST of email, stretching back to the days of my Compuserve email address in 1998. This is my diary of life, my record of existance. Where I was, who I spoke to, what I did.

Google created Wave. Designed as an eventual replacement to email, combining IM, email and group chat into one in-line terribly clever platform, it was most likely just too early to market. Meanwhile, while we all cling to our love hate relationship with email, email clients have evolved woefully slowly.

Why No Better Email Clients?

Given the popularity of Gmail (and the amount of time we ALL spend doing our email) it therefore suprises me that no one has invented an appropriate IMAP based client to compliment the Gmail offering, or even simply re-envision an email client in general. Perhaps this goes against the concept of the web and cloud. Perhaps it is my old-school thinking rearing its head. Perhaps, which is possibly true, there at enough email clients established and entrenched, which do the job well enough.

The cloud -i.e. the internet- is awesome. It is the future of everything; but as with all powerful inventions it is subject to the inevitability of human error. GMail is not yet sufficiently robust – and nor is it designed – to suck up the previous 10 years of my email and give me an efficient way to manage and sort this in the new paradigm that is GMail. I’ve tried.

That leaves me with an archive and retrieval issue. I want all my historical email at my fingertips and I want it safely synced.

With IMAP proving a liability -and prohibitively slow with Googles servers and local clients- I’m back to having to set up a POP box which will download a copy of everything from my GMail and store it for later search. If I’m having to do that, there is something wrong with Gmail, the email clients, or both.

I wish someone would fix it, because at this rate I’m headed back to bed with the cougar.

STOP PRESS: Good overview of the evolution of email in an infographic over at this Mashable article about email

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4 thoughts on “Isn’t It Time Someone Re-Invented The Email Client?

  1. The best way to use imap reliably in gmail is actually to give google control of your mx record. There is no longer up to an hours wait for email to drop in…

  2. Hi Scott,

    I read your post intently because we are doing what you ask.

    We’re launching Scayl the first direct unlimited social email platform.

    You can see an early illustration of it on YouTube by searching for Scayl DEMO. I send a 370 MB HD Video and play it on 10×14 foot screens as it’s arriving…

    What’s new is we put both client and server agent on every node, there are no attachment limits, better attachment handling, and we’re building out secure synching in profile social inboxes next.

    Guess what? It’s your data and your profile now!

    The import of your big history is something we need to pay attention to.

    We’re working the problem. Scayl was just picked out of hundreds of digital start-ups nationwide as a finalist for Business Insider Startup 2011. See: http://www.businessinsider.com/startup2011/finalists#ixzz1LIZEHhfP

    If you’re going see you there. If not, please reach out and open a dialogue. We’re all ears for customers interested in what we’re doing and want to get it right. Regards, Bill Kallman, CEO, Scayl

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