State of e-mail 2014

Posted on Sat 27 December 2014 in random notes

I've been chatting with @stefan2904 about mail clients recently and we came to the conclusion that we're rather unsatisfied with the current status of desktop mailing software.

Only a few weeks back I've reorganized my complete e-mail workflow again. I've done this once before and it was unpleasant the first time, it was still annoying the second time. Moving your mails from one provider to another one is crappy, slow and error prone - the more advanced tools are complicated and not suited for an impatient mood. I'm not sure what the preferred tool for this task is but migrating your existing mails with Apple Mail or Thunderbird is every bit as shitty as it sounds. (CMD+A, drag to folder on other mail provider, wait for timeout to occur, repeat)

Anyway. My previous setup looked like this:

  • IMAP (standard, or rather sub-standard) at my website host whose SquirrelMail web interface is crappy and its filtering sucks in every single category you can think of, be that spam or rules for regular mail.
  • IMAP (standard, but somewhat better) Horde mail interface at my institute at university.
  • Exchange (the name is precisely the activity I wanted to do with it) mail for university, directly at university
  • iCloud IMAP (sub-standard) holy shit. I've wanted to switch to iCloud for its Push delivery of new mail to my iOS devices. I've never before seen such a ridiculous spam-reporting technique. You are supposed to forward mail that their filter has missed to a special address. iCloud really completely blocks spam instead of collecting it in a dedicated folder like Gmail does.

In essence, I had all those accounts set up on all of my devices (3, about to become 4) and that led to the occasional confusion and a lot of micromanagement for identities and preferences when setting up a device or changing a tiny detail.

There were a few points I intensely disliked about former setup, the most annoying one getting spam onto my mobile phone. Since there is no automated spam filtering in the iOS world you have to rely on your server component. If your server part happens to be crap, you are syncing every tiny piece of unwanted mail to mobile devices regardless of its importance (read: spam is not important). That means more irrelevant notifications and less battery life. I arrived at this setup after realizing I wanted Push notifications for at least some of my mails. Newer versions of iOS do not provide Push for Gmail accounts, so I switched everything to iCloud.

However, working with multiple e-mail accounts, aliases and different push/fetch settings as well as redirects quickly proved painful and actively discouraged me from using my preferred address, the one associated with my domain.

To Google again

In order to remedy this, as well as get better push support I've moved back to Gmail. Since Gmail support for iOS is not exactly the best (although quite good) and the Gmail iOS app feels more like a wrapper arounds its website than a responsive app, I've also decided to make Mailbox my new mail client on both iOS and OS X (admittedly, the desktop version is only in beta stage at the moment but it works okay).

Another big reason for my renewed use of Gmail is its automated spam filtering: In contrast to other solutions which require you to follow a certain process for reporting spam Gmail allows you to simply move an unwanted mail to its Junk folder via IMAP. Learning will happen automatically on the server side. Let me repeat this again, so you can appreciate it better: There is no need to create rules or other procedures to combat spam other than marking unwanted mails as spam when they arrive.

What works great

Swiping is a great interaction method for clearing messages quickly. Auto-swipes sync across your devices (as the should). While it would be preferable to have absolutely all filtering on the server-side, creating simple rules is extremely fast and very handy. Due to the Dropbox integration, both rules and preferences sync to your other devices if you choose so.

In contrast to Google's Inbox which I've also tested for a few hours, I vastly prefer the simple white interface to Google's Material Design. As you are probably aware, Google tries its best to keep you immersed in their ecosystem, which makes working harder on iOS if you prefer to use tools from multiple companies.

What's decidedly bad

Desktop

It seems like there is no (outgoing) attachment support in the desktop version yet. From having a look around the forums I arrived at the conclusion that the preferred method is to put a file into one's Dropbox and send the link to that. I am curious if this will be automated via the GUI in the future.

While drafts are accessible on the desktop, it's simply not possible to save a draft. I've tried hitting CMD+S, I've checked whether there is a prompt on closing an unsaved message, I've double-checked the menus for an option regarding saving of drafts. It seems like I will keep my habit of keeping e-mails as short as possible.

Mobile

Mailbox for iOS seems to choke on particularly long e-mails - even on the latest iPad (iPad Air 2), so I assume it is not a CPU problem. Since this only happens on the extremely long log file one of our server creates every day it is not a problem for me.

Another slight problem is iOS's unwillingness to let users exchange the default mail program. While this could easily be remedied by Mailbox providing a new iOS 8 share extension, it is currently necessary for me to have my Gmail account configured in Apple's Mail.app in order to share articles from Instapaper and Reeder easily. I've set the refresh to 'manually' to avoid syncing everything twice.