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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. Me says:

      Why the hell do I want anything of my personal life such as emails hosted by Google? Are you nuts? It’s funny how people who will cry about government snooping have no problem about putting their email on a corporate server to have targeted advertisements mined from the content. I don’t trust how powerful and how much information resources Google has and is attempting to control. I will keep my own email and my own private correspondences to myself thank you very much.

    2. One aspect of online “anything” must be addressed as we move forward into different areas of how we use, create and access our our data…better and more comprehensive email archiving and back-up. I’ve often had difficulty convincing friends and business associates they should set-up their Gmail or Yahoo Mail to be archived and saved on their own computer hard drives. Afterall, they can never be sure when or if their saved or sent email will be available at some critical, future date in time. Personally, it’s still a little scary relying on a “free” service to save my data. Off site back-up is great, but not when it’s the only back-up you have.

      I’ve used Entourage and currently use Apple’s Mail. Those have been very effective for me, but I also have and use a .Mac account for email that not as business-critical to me. If I lose those emails, I’m ok with that. But in terms of having access to everyday “saved” and “sent” email both personal and work-related, I want those on my own hard drives. I’m on the team, just not ready to play yet.

    3. SnakeBoy says:

      The one thing that browser based email clients do not have and that I require is Rules. How do you manage email lists in a browser based email client? How do you manage to see important emails first in a webmail app? How do you export your address book if you want to send it to someone else?

      Even my In-laws (in their 70’s) prefer Mail over Cox’s webmail app. If nothing else, there is the ease of drag and drop in desktop email clients.

      Cox’s spam filter is not bad, but the only way to access what Cox has deemed spam is to log in to their Webmail app. Why? What if there are false positives?

      Webmail is fine for newbies and folks who do not do a lot of email reading, but the question really should be “Why aren’t Webmail apps dying?”

    4. Link33 says:

      I much prefer stand alone mail clients. It’s easier to manage the messages. I don’t need an ultrafast computer. I can shift click multiple messages and then drag them where I want them. I don’t have to worry about a site that’s inaccessible because of my internet connection.

      I do however use IMAP. I can access my mail online whenever I need to and it has worked well for the last 4 years. It has it’s draw backs but on the whole it is a great best of both worlds solution.

      One last note is just on the professional level. Do I want to do business with a salesman who has a free yahoo account of davetheinsuranceguy@yahoo?

    5. Tom B says:

      “Why the hell do I want anything of my personal life such as emails hosted by Google?” Your Email travels, as plain text, over thousands of servers owned by Unknown Individuals. If you want privacy, you need to encrypt.

    6. Travis B says:

      There’s a huge difference between an email that spends 30 seconds hopping from server to server, and an archive that sits there on a public server for days, months, years… The one has to be caught in the brief interval it spends travelling; the other can be accessed at any time.

      I also find the performance on the web apps I’m forced to use (most notably a sales data entry website, but also including web forums for groups that don’t have an email list) to be inconsistent at best, abysmal at worst. Count me a firm unbeliever in the whole web application movement; to my mind, they’re a method of last resort.

      [Added: As an example, when I clicked to submit the comment, it took close to a minute for the comment to be submitted and the page to update. Not the kind of performance I’d find acceptable in an email package!]

    7. Tom B says:

      “There’s a huge difference between an email that spends 30 seconds hopping from server to server, and an archive that sits there on a public server for days, months, years”

      No difference at all, really. You think web traffic is magically erased when it passes through a node?

    8. The one thing that browser based email clients do not have and that I require is Rules. How do you manage email lists in a browser based email client? How do you manage to see important emails first in a webmail app? How do you export your address book if you want to send it to someone else?

      Even my In-laws (in their 70’s) prefer Mail over Cox’s webmail app. If nothing else, there is the ease of drag and drop in desktop email clients.

      Cox’s spam filter is not bad, but the only way to access what Cox has deemed spam is to log in to their Webmail app. Why? What if there are false positives?

      Webmail is fine for newbies and folks who do not do a lot of email reading, but the question really should be “Why aren’t Webmail apps dying?”

      Both Gmail and Cox’s Webmail have “Rules,” only they call them “Filters.” The same holds true for the Web client at the business mail hosting service we use: http://www.webmail.us. They all allow you to define custom handling of specific messages that fit particular requirements, which surely covers a fair amount of what you want. They may not be as sophisticated as the ones in the most powerful desktop email clients, but they should suit for most purposes.

      As to performance, this depends. I find that the best of the breed are remarkably snappy. After you watch Entourage 2004 get hung up when it tries to multithread, you might even wonder if some Web-based alternatives might be superior in that respect.

      Peace,
      Gene

    9. Dave says:

      All of my mail comes through fastmail.fm. They have a very nice interface and lots of good features, including filters for filing emails into particular folders. But still, I like using Mail for a lot of the reasons already stated, including having copies on my hard drive.

    10. Mike Cohen says:

      I’ve never used email provided by any ISP. I want them to provide my connectivity and nothing else. I’d rather get my email elsewhere. For a long time I’ve used the IMAP mailbox provided with my web hosting account from Dreamhost as my primary email. Now I use gmail because it’s more convenient and I like the functionality.

    11. I’ve never used email provided by any ISP. I want them to provide my connectivity and nothing else. I’d rather get my email elsewhere. For a long time I’ve used the IMAP mailbox provided with my web hosting account from Dreamhost as my primary email. Now I use gmail because it’s more convenient and I like the functionality.

      I don’t use Gmail because of the lack of IMAP compatibility, although I have an account there.

      Peace,
      Gene

    12. Andrew says:

      For me it comes down to offline availability, which no webmail client can offer. I want to be able to read my archived emails, respond to new messages, reference old ones, all at 35,000 feet without an internet connection. Thats what laptops are all about, carrying your data with you and manipulating it wherever and whenever you want to. I don’t have any desire to limit that access to “when online” only.

    13. For me it comes down to offline availability, which no webmail client can offer. I want to be able to read my archived emails, respond to new messages, reference old ones, all at 35,000 feet without an internet connection. Thats what laptops are all about, carrying your data with you and manipulating it wherever and whenever you want to. I don’t have any desire to limit that access to “when online” only.

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

      Peace,
      Gene

    14. Andrew says:

      Sometimes, but sometimes I have work to do even when I don’t have internet access.

    15. Sometimes, but sometimes I have work to do even when I don’t have internet access.

      I feel for you. 🙂

      Peace,
      Gene

    16. Jack Leckliter says:

      I run a small business using FileMakerPro for all our order and customer tracking, and from which we generate personalized emails to customers at various points in the inquiry/ordering/shipping process. FileMaker will hand off the personalized message directly to the email app running on your computer to send the message (currently I’m using Eudora) so that the process is totally seamless and automated. I use this many times daily for customer communications and can’t imagine living without it, which I’d have to with a web-based email host. The efficiency and time savings issue is a big one here for me.

      One related question I would have is what about an equivalent with online email apps to Eudora’s stationery (i.e., boilerplate text you can call up and customize for a given customer). Don’t know if that exists yet, but that’s another efficiency issue for the customer relations side of running a business. I use this often every day as well, for situations that do not dovetail with our automated FileMaker emails.

    17. Jack Leckliter says:

      P.S. Another thing I like about Eudora is the delayed-send feature. I.e., you can compose an email at, say, 7:00 in the evening, but queue it to be sent at 9:00 the next morning. If you an independent consultant or other freelancer, this prevents clients’ from knowing you are replying to emails after hours. Clients can be a real pain if they know you’re working outside normal business hours, and start basing their expectations about working with you on that knowledge. Maintaining more privacy about your off-time can be important when you work one-on-one with customers like this, which I have in the past, and the delayed-send feature is another thing that is one of those “extras” you’re likely to find only in desktop email apps. Don’t see why online email apps couldn’t have this, but don’t believe Gmail does yet. (I have a Gmail account for emergencies when my regular ISP is down, but it’s been a while since I used it, so correct me if I am wrong.)

    18. Eytan says:

      Offline is key
      aggregating accounts without forwarding is key
      I love Apple Mail, and I am not giving it up – even though the interface for .mac, yahoo, gmail, hotmail, and comcast have all improved (yes, I have accounts on all).

    19. Norman Brooks says:

      Why the hell do I want anything of my personal life such as emails hosted by Google? Are you nuts? It’s funny how people who will cry about government snooping have no problem about putting their email on a corporate server to have targeted advertisements mined from the content. I don’t trust how powerful and how much information resources Google has and is attempting to control. I will keep my own email and my own private correspondences to myself thank you very much.

      Amen to that. An additional thought that no one else has raised: I’ve changed ISP’s 3 times since I first started using mail.app, but I’m still using all my original mail boxes and still have all my old correspondence in those boxes. This would have been a real pain when changing ISP’s.

    20. Amen to that. An additional thought that no one else has raised: I’ve changed ISP’s 3 times since I first started using mail.app, but I’m still using all my original mail boxes and still have all my old correspondence in those boxes. This would have been a real pain when changing ISP’s.

      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

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