Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, February 19, 2010

fixing email

My recent exodus from Gmail and consequent return to the world of the desktop email client has got me thinking about what an email application really fundamentally is.

It’s three things, it seems to me: it’s a text editor, it’s a database, and it’s a file manager. The problem is that there is no email client that fulfills all these functions really well. And probably no two users will weigh the relative importance of these functions in precisely the same way.

Take Gmail, for instance. It has always been an extremely responsive, extremely reliable database. And as its system of labels, filters, and “Labs” commands developed — Oh how I miss you, Send and Archive! — it became an increasingly sophisticated file manager. But its text editing capabilities were limited and awkward from day 1. As much fun as it was to set up an organizational system in Gmail, it was that much of a pain to write anything in the darn thing.

Contrast that to an ancient favorite of the geeky Mac crowd, Mailsmith — none of that newfangled IMAP crap for me, sonny! — which borrows its text-editing engine from BBEdit and therefore in this respect blows every other email client in the world out of the water. It has a pretty good filtering system too, with fine-grained controls, though in my experience the filters do not work consistently. But its database, while solid, is excruciatingly slow — I mean, go-out-and-have-lunch-and-it-still-hasn’t-finished-your-search slow — so that and its single-minded devotion to POP make it unusable.

If swift and sophisticated file management is your sine qua non, then you can't do better than — well, mutt or alpine, assuming you don't mind working from the command line. Watching a true mutt master compose, send, reply to, and file emails is like watching the knife tricks at Benihana. But mutt and alpine obviously aren't serious options for many users.

So we’re still waiting, I think, for an email app that puts it all together. Maybe Letters, the early-in-development email client for alpha Mac geeks, will do it. But I doubt it. My guess is that email will be replaced by a wholly different communications technology before anyone figures out how to make an email client that isn't seriously compromised in one or more of its functions.


  • I am an erstwhile mutt user. Mutt excels as a MUA because it does only one thing -- it reads mail. It is neither a text editor nor a database. In other words, it leaves the editing, fetching, sending, sorting, and storage to other programs. For instance, one can choose to edit mails with either vim or emacs.

    I've been eagerly following the development of notmuch -- an email indexing and search tool that follows gmail's conventions of tagging and archiving mail.

    I'm not sure I agree that email will soon be superseded. Email is just a bunch of text files that adhere to a certain format/protocol. You can store, index, edit, and manipulate email files the same way you would any other text file. Like the web (which is also, at its core, based on the transfer of text in the form of html), email is mystified for the average user by cumbersome and arcane GUI clients. The problem is that inefficient GUI programs lead ever more people to abandon the open and distributed protocol that is email in exchange for closed and centralized platforms like twitter and facebook.

  • A helpful response, Dave — but mutt does have its own text editor, right? It's just that hardly anyone uses it because they prefer (and mutt prefers) to use their favorite text editor.

    And I don't think that email will soon be superseded — just that it will fade away before these problems are solved! (That may be decades.)

  • Also, Dave, I just looked at the notmuch website, and (as a non-geek) I find it confusing. What other applications do you have running in order to use notmuch? A text editor and a full-fledged email client like alpine?

    Projects like this always remind me how the standard Unix model — several small, dedicated programs linked together to accomplish tasks — differs so greatly from the Swiss-army-knife model of so many GUI apps.

  • Funny how the actual emailing part of working with email has been so successfully abstracted that it didn't even make it into your anatomy. After all, an email client is "a tool for securely exchanging data with a remote server," right?

  • You're right, Matt! — I was thinking about what it is for the user, not what it actually does. Duh.

  • Alan, it sounds like you're all set for the benevolent tyranny of the iPad. (I kid.)

  • Yes, I've just realized — after all this time — I've just come to understand — I really do love Big Brother.

  • I stand corrected about mutt lacking an editor. Apparently it does have a built-in editor, though I've never heard of anyone using it. :)

    Yes, you are right about notmuch. It's very much a geek project and still in its infancy. It does little more than index and tag emails (the database part of your description above). It can be invoked entirely from the command line. I use a rudimentary front end in emacs.

  • Have you considered Postbox? It's based on Mozilla Thunderbird, which I use, but it's a souped-up version that might meet your standards. http://www.postbox-inc.com/

  • Here's another useful one from Gizmodo: "How to escape from Google's clutches once and for all"

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