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Are Desktop Email Applications a Dying Breed?

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.