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Re: Your E-Mail Feature Requests

After today's column went to the copy desk last night, I told my editor that I thought there was a 50-50 chance of readers looking at the piece and saying "huh?"--I've heard from some who not only seem content with one Web-mail service or another, they don't even know what a traditional mail client is.

On the other hand, there are people like like my mother.

Mom upgraded from her old dial-up account to Verizon's Fios broadband last month. The installation went fine, but Verizon's technician neglected to configure her e-mail program, Apple's Mail, to connect to her new account. Verizon's tech support suggested she use the company's Web-mail feature. Mom was not interested in that option, so she called her primary source of tech support--me--to ask for help getting her mail program working again.

Over a series of long phone calls, I tried to walk her through the process of plugging in the right server addresses and security parameters. You can imagine how much fun that's been--and since something is still messed up with her outgoing-mail settings, I'm going to have to take a look at things firsthand over this weekend.

(Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell said the company uses a Windows-only setup utility to configure some e-mail programs; customers who don't run those programs or who don't use Windows have to do the configuration themselves.)

That got me thinking. So did the realization that I hadn't reviewed a new e-mail program since the fall of 2007, when I briefly described new features in Apple's Mail as part of a writeup of Mac OS X Leopard; my last in-depth treatment of a mail client might be my 2006 evaluation of Mozilla Thunderbird 1.5. (Since then, I've covered Thunderbird 2.0 in a short blog post, and my review of Microsoft Office 2007 noted how few changes its version of Outlook offered compared to what Microsoft shipped in Office 2003.)

Considering both the prevalence of Office and the lack of effort put into other mail programs, I wasn't surprised by the statistics gathered by two e-mail marketing-research firms, Campaign Monitor and FingerPrint. Both companies attempt to track the popularity of mail applications by embedding a small, trackable image in messages sent to the large mailing lists they help run.

Sydney, Australia-based Campaign Monitor found that Outlook and Outlook Express combined for almost 39 percent of the market--it can't distinguish between Outlook 2000, Outlook 2003 and Outlook Express, thanks to the way those clients identify themselves when downloading an embedded image--with the next most popular program being Apple's Mail, at just 7.6 percent. Yahoo Mail and Microsoft's Hotmail, meanwhile, each had about a 16 percent share. Leeds, U.K.-based FingerPrint, meanwhile, saw a similar pattern; after Outlook and Outlook Express, only Apple Mail was above a 2 percent share, with the bulk of the market occupied by Web-mail services.

(Speaking of Hotmail, were you locked out of your account last night? I wish I could take credit for timing a story questioning the utility of Web-mail for such a public breakdown. But that was just dumb luck.)

The sad--and annoying--thing about this state of affairs is that e-mail software can and should do a lot more, considering the time we spend on mail. Yesterday, I sat down with usability consultant Jakob Nielsen for lunch and spent much of that time talking about ways to improve e-mail.

Nielsen threw out a variety of suggestions, many of which individual developers could implement on their own: "threaded" views that, like Gmail, show your mail as a conversation; expiration-date filters to delete no-longer-relevant messages (for instance, "your bill is ready to view" notices) after a set period of days; using the same intelligent filtering technology that lets mail software learn to identify spam to highlight messages sent by the people who matter to you the most.

Some of the things on Nielsen's wish list, however, would require concerted effort among multiple companies, such as auto-discovery of mail server settings or an end to proprietary message storage formats (such as the one used by Nielsen's current client, Outlook 2007).

I can only hope that some enterprising developer will read this post, get inspired and get to work writing a mail program that's worth getting excited about.

Meanwhile: Take the poll, then talk about your own choice of e-mail application--what you like about it, what you don't like, and what might get you to switch--in the comments below.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 10, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  E-mail , The Web  
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Comments

I use Yahoo for current email, but I don't trust web mail accounts as a long-term archive, so every now and then I download all my email off the Yahoo server to Outlook.

This creates a problem: I really would like to migrate my old email archive from the Outlook 2000 .pst file (presently 1.4GB) to something else in a non-proprietary format. Don't want all my email history to be captive to an obsolete solution. Any answers?

Posted by: nhs76 | April 10, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

OS X mail is indeed the only desktop mail client I've found worth using. Even then, using GMail makes me wish it did some things better: tagging, message views, and some way to help me keep my inbox from exploding while I'm not looking. Expirations sound like a great idea!

Outlook drives me crazy at work on a daily basis. I'll spend 5-10 minutes looking bewildered trying to find a message from only a week ago. It makes me wonder why I bother saving emails at all.

Posted by: divestoclimb | April 10, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I use Eudora for my personal email. I am used to the interface, I can filter my downloaded mail into various mailboxes, and I just like it. If I'm away from home, I can use my service provider's webmail interface.

If I want to check my work email from home, I have to use Outlook Web Access.

Posted by: Ghak | April 10, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

I use webmail for stores and mailing lists. Email from close friends gets sent to an ISP that still maintains unix shell accounts so I can use pine.

Posted by: koalatek | April 10, 2009 3:03 PM | Report abuse

I switched from using Yahoo! mail to gmail because gmail allows you to download to outlook. I am a college student and purchased outlook, because I find it incredibly useful. I can put due dates in tasks, class schedule in the calendar, etc. As one of the few Microsoft programs I even like, let alone love, I would be very upset if Microsoft did away with outlook. I was very upset when the 2007 Student/Teacher package didn't include outlook. Also, outlook 2007 made it much easier to add e-mail accounts. I did not have to mess with Pop3, etc. I simply through in the address and associated password for both my web mail and my ISP mail and outlook did the rest.

Posted by: jdlytal | April 10, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

I pull as many of my 6-8 e mail accounts into GMAIL via POP as I can. I use 5-8 different PC's and a fairly basic cell phone which can all read that mail. But those are just my personal accounts.

Work mail is Outlook 2007, with Exchange back end, and OWA for remotes. I think it's a functional Enterprise setup.

My son's college is moving away from their own mail servers for students to a private label Gmail or Livemail account. Same for my daughters future college. That makes great sense to me.

Posted by: JkR- | April 10, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Use a BB and TB; just as my BB can have specific ring-tones to announce the arrival of mssgs from specific people, why can't my e-mail program do the same?

Posted by: impg2 | April 10, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the series of long phone calls with your mom, do you not have a way to remotely control her computer (or at least view her screen) so you don't have to talk her through it? I provide tech support for my parents and my brother, and those types of calls were making us all crazy, so now I just remote into their computers and fix stuff that way. They can watch and learn, but without the frustration of trying to understand what I'm telling them to do (and me trying to determine what they're seeing on their screen).

Posted by: Podunk | April 10, 2009 10:58 PM | Report abuse

Ever wonder why Jakob's website is so poorly organized? It reflects poorly on his expertise. Oh yeah, I use Yahoo Mail via the web maybe 75% of the time. The other 25% is IMAP on my iPhone email client. Which isn't as efficient as say Blackverrk or Windows Mobile clients.

Posted by: davezatz | April 11, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Eudora (although I'm still mourning the cessation of develoment) still serves me quite well. I access my Gmail and other mail accounts via the different "personalities" available in the program. I use both POP and IMAP, depending on the account. I have all important mail since 1996 in it for instant access.

The ability to sort each of my frequent email conversations into a personal mailbox for that person is one of the best features, as I communicate with over 200 folks on a regular basis. That way I have the ability to see what the person said in their previous mail without having to wander through the IN box. The sorting also keeps my IN box fairly manageable.

I also like the ability to block and get rid of any number of levels of quotes by the CTRL-. dual keypress. With that, messy forwards get changed to nice emails with little effort.

The only thing I don't like about Eudora (besides the fact that no one else has picked up the ball of continued development on it) is that it stores all the attachments in another directory and provides NO WAY to EXPORT all the mail to another mail program, should one ever be created to take its place.

Another minor dislike is that you cannot store images in its signature files...but that might be a plus for readers. ;)

So, c'mon you brilliant experts in writing email programs, now is the time to step forward (or some dimensional equivalent) and move Eudora to its rightful place at the end of the oughts of this century.

Pax,
Rick

Posted by: RHMathis | April 12, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

I'm surprised my arrangement, both desktop and web-based email, is most popular. Apparently, many of us choose not to put all our eggs in one basket.

My desktop email program is Apple's Mail. It is useful for writing mail offline and keeping messages archived from years ago. Mail also is easy synchronized through MobileMe and accessible via my iPhone. LIke Gmail, it has good spam filtering, so you never have to look at most of that junk.

I try to use Gmail for most commerce-related email, not involving accounts and banking. Apple's Mail is more likely to be used for my business and academic careers. One of my Yahoo accounts is quite old and used for generalities. The other is solely for accounts and bank-related email. (That way, when I see a message from a bank I use or Paypal in Mail or Gmail I know it is phishing.)

Since my two frequently used email accounts, Mail and one from Yahoo, are available offline on both my computers and my iPhone, I only have to remind myself to check the other two online every few days if I am not expecting anything in particular. I never use my Comcast email account.


Posted by: query0 | April 12, 2009 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Rob

You and I have each chatted about the lack of a truly competative product to Outlook.

For e-mail alone, I use G-Mail.

I am hesitant to leave my information on a remote server, but with G-Mail, there is no option, but when it comes to a calender function, etc., forget a remote server.

I am not surprised that a significant majority law firms use Outlook, even though many still continue to also use Word Perfect instead of Word. There are potential liability issues for the compromise of confidential client information, thus many are understandably shy of leaving such information on a remote server instead of keeping it either on hard drives, CDs or DVDs in-house.

Posted by: brucerealtor@gmail.com | April 13, 2009 12:19 AM | Report abuse

Rob, have you checked out Postbox for the Mac? It's based on Thunderbird but kicks its ASH in features and is under (hyper)active development.

Posted by: Bush--notrelated | April 13, 2009 7:07 AM | Report abuse

Rob,

I use both webmail and Thunderbird. Why? Because I often get attachments with e-mails that are confidential or I need to take the attachments with me to places where Internet service is not available.

IMHO, there are two (2) essential elements to the e-mail client problem: (i) availability of an internet connection and (ii) how people use e-mail. Brucerealtor (above) is definitely on to other key concerns why webmail is a problem for some users.

People use e-mail in different ways. Your use habits dictates what type of client you use.

My mother uses e-mail strictly for messaging and viewing pics of grandchildren. AOL Mail is fine for her - she loves the simplicity of the user interface. MY SO sits at a desk all day with a live Internet connection, so webmail that groups messages together into conversations and never needs to be deleted (GMail) is just great. I live out of a suitcase, travel were internet access is unavailable, and many of my messages deal with document attachments, some confidential. Attachments need to be available wherever, whenever. Because of the confidential nature of some of the attachments, I do not trust webmail for storing these sensitive materials.

Last, you have the synchronization problem in its many forms. It is very easy to lose or misplace messages and/or attachments when you are forced to use multiple e-mail platforms, let alone e-mail clients.

If webmail sites provided better user-defined security and retention, I might consider using them exclusively. But, I'm not holding my breath on that issue. In the meantime, some e-mail client somewhere needs to address simplification of the synch problem for road warriors like me..

Posted by: Parziale | April 13, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Might as well join the "what e-mail programs do I use" thread:

* My desktop apps are Mail on the Mac at home and Thunderbird on the PC at work.
* I use my home ISP's Web-mail site reasonably often; the work Web-mail, less often (it's not very good).
* I use Gmail for shopping/commerce messages, with Yahoo and Hotmail reserved for situations where I don't really care what e-mail some random Web site might send me months later on.

@query0 I endorse the strategy of having your bank and credit-card messages go to a lesser-known address.

@RHMAthis Some of the Eudora developers are working on an open-source fusion of Eudora and Thunderbird, but it looks like it'll be a while before they ship a 1.0 version: https://wiki.mozilla.org/Penelope

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | April 13, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Thank you Rob. Especially your Mom story.
I'm a mom that has butted heads with her son re e-mail programs.

I'm still in the twilight zone, use Earthlink dialup and OS WindowsXP SP2.
At the moment I don't desire instant gratification. I'm a multitasker. Read, do laundry etc. in between. It also allows me to change my mind if by mistake I click SENDER in haste.

My only problem are letters from overseas in other languages that only can be read in my webmail inbox (Earthlink). Their TotalAccess was defunct eons ago. Trying to communicate with their IT's was a losing battle, don't speak the same language.

I plan to finally connect with a broadband providor but dislike outlook.

Are yours and readers suggested e-mail programs referred to Mac users only or is the much boohood Microsoft platform included in this conversation?

Thank you in advance for any replies.

Posted by: ziga | April 13, 2009 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I have 3 different accounts for different purposes in Thunderbird. Before Thunderbird I used Netscape Messenger, never OE.

I like being able to filter the incoming mail into different subfolders, physically moving messages around, and colorcoding them. Gmail, which I acquired recently, is a wonderfully efficient webmail, totally spamless, but I couldn't use it as my main email without subfolders.

Webmail programs such as Yahoo and Hotmail, with their ubiquitous ads, really rile me.

Posted by: rpfix | April 13, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

I thought I would weigh in as well. I use Outlook at work and on my Windows machine at home, and I use Mac Mail on my Mac Book Pro. I also use my ISP's webmail on occasion when I need to check my email from someone else's computer. I see pros and cons in all. Overall, I do not have any major issues with Outlook. My Outlook pet peeves are that the Rules function is far less sophisticated than Mac Mail's and when you send an email with an attachment in other than Plain Text format, other email programs get an annoying winmail.dat file rather than your attachment. Mac Mail works well for me and I like the Rules function. I use it to access mail from Comcast, GMail and my users group's email system. One thing I do find annoying is that when you are reading an email, there is no forward or backward button to advance or retreat to another email. As to webmail, Comcast recently changed their software and I do not like it at all. We have multiple email accounts (joint, personal, throw-away) and in the old software, once you logged onto your primary account you could easily click to your secondary accounts. Now the process is much more convoluted and less automatic.

As to Rob supporting his mother, he should try LogMeIn. There are paid and free versions. We use the free version to provide tech support to our parents and it works great!

Posted by: Ken_G | April 13, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

You should try Pegasus Mail, the first, and most evolved, Windows email program.

It has:
- "threaded" views that, like Gmail, show your mail as a conversation;
- expiration-date filters to delete no-longer-relevant messages (for instance, "your bill is ready to view" notices) after a set period of days; (and many more filtering choices!)
- integration with POPfile for message classification using the same intelligent filtering technology that lets mail software learn to identify spam to highlight messages sent by the people who matter to you the most.

http://pmail.com

Posted by: tOMTrottier | April 14, 2009 4:54 AM | Report abuse

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