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  • Are Desktop Email Applications a Dying Breed?

    April 10th, 2007

    The other day, I downloaded a copy of Mozilla’s latest edition of Thunderbird, which is now at version 2.0RC1. Although not quite final, it’s pretty solid, with all the new features intact. But I have to wonder about the future of apps such as this, because you can get  all or most of their features online, with a Web-based email client.

    And you don’t even need to install anything; you just have to run your browser. In fact, if the Webmail feature is run by your ISP or a separate service, such as Yahoo or Google, you don’t have to configure anything except your user name and password. What could be simpler?

    Indeed, for such a basic, essential application, email clients can be overwhelmingly complicated, particularly when you get involved with such arcane matters as SSL and “Advanced” options. Sure, the fundamentals are generally handled by some sort of setup assistant, where the application takes you step-by-step towards entering the settings you need.

    Unfortunately, the assistant is designed with the assumption that you know what to enter for “incoming” and “outgoing” mail servers and other options. That’s not always a given, because you may have to consult an ISP’s site or a “cheat sheet” provided by the installer, assuming they don’t do it for you. That can work fine, if the installer knows what they’re doing. Even then, what if you decide to switch to a different email application? Well, then you have to concern yourself with importing and exporting and all that nonsense, and that assumes such options are even available.

    Now in all fairness, if you have the right email application and the right service, it’s not such a big deal. Apple Mail, for example, will easily configure your .Mac account. It does all the hard lifting behind the scenes. The same is true for the latest Thunderbird with both .Mac and Google accounts. Neat — and I do realize that people these days might regard that word as an anachronism, but that doesn’t matter. A word is a word, and that’s the one that suits.

    My current fave as far as email applications go is Microsoft’s Entourage 2004, which does an awful lot of things correctly. But offering a few default settings for certain services isn’t part of the plan, although one hopes that the forthcoming Entourage 2008 will provide a little better guidance for the common setups, but I’m not holding my breath.

    So is it all worth the bother? Why fight to make your desktop email software function to your liking when you have online choices that may be nearly as good?

    Over the past year or two, for example, ISPs have been busy sprucing up their own Web-based email offerings to provide all the goodies, such as your own personal font choices, the ability to drag and drop messages from one folder to another, and even such extras as RSS feeds and online calendars. What more could you want?

    Take the ISP I use, Cox Communications. They recently spruced up their email in a fairly major fashion, and it actually works pretty well.

    In addition to the standard features, Cox’s Webmail lets you configure the severity of anti-spam settings, manage an address book, forward your messages to another account, and receive messages from other accounts. As with other reasonably well-crafted online mail clients, it’s pretty snappy too, and, frankly, feels nearly as fluid as a desktop email application.

    You can see where I’m going with this. As the online variants assume more and more of the features and performance of desktop applications, will there still be a place for the latter? I mean, wouldn’t it be nice not to have to install anything, to have many of the settings performed behind the scenes for you?

    Of course online applications are supposed to be the future of personal computing. That’s what Google is clearly betting on. As most of you know, Microsoft has also tried, without much success, to enter that arena.

    In a sense, then, email is just a microcosm of a larger, all-encompassing initiative. For now, whether your email client exists on your desktop or on an Internet server probably doesn’t make much of a difference. That is, except when you’re attempting to work with your messages offline. But as 24/7 broadband becomes more ubiquitous, that distinction will vanish as well.



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    38 Responses to “Are Desktop Email Applications a Dying Breed?”

    1. Jonathan C. says:

      I use Gmail exclusively, simply because it’s good, it’s not going anywhere, and they let me freely use SMTP and POP (maybe one day imap).

      How do I manage my daily email? Mail.app. I have it configured to send and receive through Gmail’s servers. So, no matter where I am, my mail is in sync. If I send something through mail.app on my iMac, the sent message will easily be located in the sent box of the gmail web client.
      If I am somewhere else and I need to check a quick email or fire one off to someone, I can do it via the Gmail web client. If I send something via the web client, the next time I check my email from Mail.app, google automatically sends it to me. One issue I had though was that it comes into my INBOX of mail.app the next time I check it. To get around this inconvenience, I simply created a rule that moves anything FROM me to the SENT box of Mail.app.

      When you SEND & Receive via Mail.app, Gmail isn’t ad targeting you. There is no sign at all that is was even sent from a free service. No ‘Do you Yahoo!’ taglines.

      That’s the beauty of Gmail. It’s free & it works very well.. no matter where I am or what ISP I use.

      Plus I can back it all up with MailSteward. It’s almost perfect.

    2. Norman Brooks says:

      As I said above, all of our email is hosted separately from the ISP and even the Web host. That way, the others can be changed without any impact whatever.

      Call it supreme paranoia (my middle name ), but I’ve got messages dating back to 1998, and I want to keep them. Well, some of them anyway.

      Peace,
      Gene

      If your email is hosted apart from your ISP, then you must be paying an extra price for it, right? lf so, that puts it in the luxury category that businesses may be willing to pay for, but not many individuals will.

    3. If your email is hosted apart from your ISP, then you must be paying an extra price for it, right? lf so, that puts it in the luxury category that businesses may be willing to pay for, but not many individuals will.

      This is email for my various domains, and has nothing to do with the ISP. I have the option of having that email managed by the Web host, but the one I was using at the time did not support IMAP. So I chose another option, for which we are paying $1 per month per mailbox (each is 1GB). For this modest sum, you get powerful spam filtering (better than the stuff ISPs and Web hosts generally provide) both POP and IMAP, SSL support and other stuff not part of Gmail or Yahoo! As I said, it’s business-oriented email. For more info, check http://www.webmail.us

      Peace,
      Gene

    4. Jonathan C. says:

      That’s cool you use Webmail.us — they are just around the corner from my house in our Corporate Research Center of Virginia Tech. Their offices are a mess.. but understandably, they are growing very very rapidly.

    5. Norman Brooks says:

      $1 per month is cheap. I tried to check on it, but got an error message. Safari can’t find the server. I’ll try again later. But I must say that I’m completely satisfied with using mail.app plus my ISP of the moment.

    6. $1 per month is cheap. I tried to check on it, but got an error message. Safari can’t find the server. I’ll try again later. But I must say that I’m completely satisfied with using mail.app plus my ISP of the moment.

      A minor typo on my part in the address, which is now fixed. 🙂

      So you can try again now.

      Remember, though, that you can’t just buy one mailbox.

      Peace,
      Gene

    7. Norman Brooks says:

      $1/month per box for a minimum of 10 boxes. They describe themselves as being an email service for businesses. Even at their minimum they look inexpensive for a business. They’re good to know about. Thanks for mentioning them.

    8. $1/month per box for a minimum of 10 boxes. They describe themselves as being an email service for businesses. Even at their minimum they look inexpensive for a business. They’re good to know about. Thanks for mentioning them.

      They are extremely reliable as well. I can’t recall ever having any downtime with them since setting up an account last November. And there have only been some minor glitches along the way. I can’t think of any other email service that can match that. Certainly not Yahoo!, Gmail or .Mac.

      Peace,
      Gene

    9. Andrew says:

      Sounds like a good service if it supports IMAP and POP instead of just webmail. I’d use it, but I get free POP mailboxes through my domain hosting account, not sure how many, but I currently use six with no extra charges. Its not IMAP, but since it all goes through my Exchange server, it might as well be.

    10. Sounds like a good service if it supports IMAP and POP instead of just webmail. I’d use it, but I get free POP mailboxes through my domain hosting account, not sure how many, but I currently use six with no extra charges. Its not IMAP, but since it all goes through my Exchange server, it might as well be.

      Indeed, Webmail.us supports POP, IMAP, and SSL options. You can use the service with any standard desktop email application and its own proprietary Web-based client. They also include an online calendar and RSS support, and they’re always adding new features. It’s a very rapid in-house development process.

      Peace,
      Gene

    11. cho says:

      I certainly don’t think that desktop-based email clients are going away. The one thing I need which web-based mail clients don’t have is access to email when I’m offline. I lug around a portable computer and don’t always have online access. I use Apple’s Mail to read already downloaded email for information. I do use IMAP so I can still use a web-based client without it having to be out of sync with Apple Mail on my laptop.

    12. Riot Nrrrdâ„¢ says:

      Gene,

      While I agree with you that WebMail-based clients are “easier to configure”, in practice I find the interfaces stiff, awkward and cumbersome to use compared to Mail.app or even Thunderbird (I use 2.0rc1). We provide WebMail access to co-workers (using Horde & IMP from The Horde Project) and I don’t know of any user that uses it as their main access mechanism.

      For power users, WebMail will never have the flexibility (not to mention speed) of a Desktop client, and as others here have cited, I find the notion of having my personal email sitting on some mega-corp server to be data mined (not to mention ad-targeted) absolutely abhorrent. I run my own email server at home (I don’t have static IP addresses, but domains like DynDNS.ORG and the like deal with this rather nicely) – I like the place where those email bits reside to be sitting in my own house, away from prying eyes.

      Another issue is longevity – other than sites like Yahoo!, Hotmail or GMail, which sites can be guaranteed to be around so that you are not constantly changing email addresses and screwing people up? I will never use an email address from my provider – it’s already changed from GTE (now Verizon) DSL to AT&T cable to Comcast cable to TimeWarner/Roadrunner (without any changes from me); having to change email addresses 4 times in that time would’ve been a nightmare. I’ve been using my present email address since the late 90’s, when DynDNS.ORG came along.

      In short, different strokes for different folks. WebMail has its place (great for overseas email checking on vacation), but for me, “No way Jose”.

    13. Bill Boebel says:

      That’s cool you use Webmail.us — they are just around the corner from my house in our Corporate Research Center of Virginia Tech. Their offices are a mess.. but understandably, they are growing very very rapidly.

      We’re moving into a new building this summer. We’ll try to keep that one clean 🙂

      fyi… I switched from Thurderbird to using Webmail 100% about a year ago. I love it. Here is a post about my road to Webmail… http://billboebel.typepad.com/blog/2006/12/the_evolution_o.html

    14. Jonathan C. says:

      We’re moving into a new building this summer. We’ll try to keep that one clean

      fyi… I switched from Thurderbird to using Webmail 100% about a year ago. I love it. Here is a post about my road to Webmail… http://billboebel.typepad.com/blog/2006/12/the_evolution_o.html

      Sorry about that Bill ;-). Your services work reliably, that’s what counts, eh? I considered webmail for my website’s domain, and the day I was ready to buy, google introduced the domain apps. A quick config of my MX records and I was up and running in minutes, for free.

      Sure, they don’t offer IMAP, but their SPAM filters are pretty good, and generally speaking, I only notice the spam if I login through the web client and see the spam folder populated.

      Even though I can on my server, I don’t have the desire nor the time to run my own mail server. Many people I know feel the same way. It makes more sense to host your email somewhere else — so you aren’t cut off from the world if you need to move your server hosting or if your server goes down.

      I always recommend Webmail.us for the gotta have 99.999999 reliablility.

    15. MichaelT says:

      Or just put on the noise-canceling headphones and take a breather

      Peace,
      Gene

      Which headphones do you recommend? I saw a review of some JVC noise-cancelling headphones yesterday. (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,264945,00.html)
      $40 bucks sounds a lot more affordable to a dad than $350. How many NC headphones have you tried, and what quality level have you found? I’d love to have the Bose, but as I said, $350 can go a long way when raising kids. On the other hand, I don’t want to say everytime I put on the headphones, “Man, these just aren’t as good as the Bose.” Maybe it’s worth the extra.

    16. Which headphones do you recommend? I saw a review of some JVC noise-cancelling headphones yesterday. (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,264945,00.html)
      $40 bucks sounds a lot more affordable to a dad than $350. How many NC headphones have you tried, and what quality level have you found? I’d love to have the Bose, but as I said, $350 can go a long way when raising kids. On the other hand, I don’t want to say everytime I put on the headphones, “Man, these just aren’t as good as the Bose.” Maybe it’s worth the extra.

      There are two versions of the Bose noise-canceling headphones. One is the $300 version and the other is $350. Bose lets you pay off the purchase in 6 or 12 payments after an initial deposit, if the money concerns you. I have also had good results with theBoom Quiet, which is used in the airline business and on Wall Street. For my money, Bose is a better sounding product, but theBoom Quiet lets you disable noise canceling when you feel it’s not needed. I use them for monitoring our recordings for the two radio shows.

      Peace,
      Gene

    17. Bill Boebel says:

      [

      Sorry about that Bill ;-). Your services work reliably, that’s what counts, eh? I considered webmail for my website’s domain, and the day I was ready to buy, google introduced the domain apps. A quick config of my MX records and I was up and running in minutes, for free.

      Sure, they don’t offer IMAP, but their SPAM filters are pretty good, and generally speaking, I only notice the spam if I login through the web client and see the spam folder populated.

      Even though I can on my server, I don’t have the desire nor the time to run my own mail server. Many people I know feel the same way. It makes more sense to host your email somewhere else — so you aren’t cut off from the world if you need to move your server hosting or if your server goes down.

      I always recommend Webmail.us for the gotta have 99.999999 reliablility.

      No problem Jonathan. I appreciate the recommendations.

    18. No problem Jonathan. I appreciate the recommendations.

      And to echo what I said previously, I’m extremely pleased with Webmail.us and it’s a great value for business email.

      Bill and Pat and the rest of their crew should be proud of the company they’ve built.

      Peace,
      Gene

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