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.
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