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Does the World Need Another Mac Email App?

On last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I did a segment with Amanda Lefebvre, one of the product people at Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit, to discuss some of the most compelling features of the forthcoming Office 2011 for the Mac.

Due out in October, there are two key improvements of note, one of which is the restoration of Visual Basic support, which means that you will be able to read and create macros that are compatible with the Windows version of the office suite. This was one of the serious shortcomings of Office 2008 for the Mac, where some potential upgraders were stopped in their tracks. Microsoft said it would have taken another year to restore that support, and I suppose you can believe them, since their programming teams have never been known to be very fast at what they do.

The other key change is a brand new email/contact app, Outlook, which is said to be very similar to the Windows counterpart. In recent years, Microsoft has relied on a more consumer-oriented app, Entourage, to serve as an alternative to Apple Mail. And, no, I’m not going to mention the controversial ribbon, since that’s just an interface alternative and beyond the scope of this column.

Now this is actually Microsoft’s second attempt to build a genuine Outlook for the Mac. The original version appeared during the Classic Mac OS era, but never made the transition to Mac OS X.

In turn, Entourage was based on Microsoft’s other Mac email app, Outlook Express, onto which decent contact management capabilities were crafted.

Now don’t get me wrong. Entourage is a decent email app, and it does feature fairly robust handling of IMAP mail, the protocol where the messages are stored on the server so you can access them from any computer or mobile device and have them always stay in sync.

Unfortunately, Entourage can also be dead slow, and, by storing all your messages in a monolithic database, you risk the loss of everything if that file becomes corrupted. Yes, there is a repair tool, but the need for such a clumsy utility seems a throwback to a long-gone era.

Now I haven’t used Outlook yet, although some people have gotten unofficial access to the Mac BU’s betas. Since it’s allegedly a new app built in Apple’s Cocoa framework, there’s hope, assuming Microsoft gives it the proper fit and polish when it comes to the interface, speed and reliability. It will also reportedly use a file-based storage system, which will make it far easier to handle, particularly when you’re doing Time Machine backups.

However, the real issue is whether Outlook is truly needed by people who don’t have business email accounts on a Microsoft Exchange Server. Even then, Apple Mail already supports Exchange, although Outlook promises to offer more robust handling of messages and other data.

Indeed, Microsoft actually has plans for a low-end version of Office for 2011 that doesn’t even include Outlook for very much the same reason. Most of these consumer users will be well served with Mail.

More to the point, however, is whether Apple has largely removed the need for any other email app except for specialized needs. Compared to most third-party email clients I’ve tried, Mail has become faster, and offers most of the features anyone needs in such software. It’s Junk filter is trainable and quite robust. You might wish for a more sophisticated Rules feature, but if you just want to move certain messages from specific senders or meeting other criteria to different mailboxes, you can quickly get the job done without having to know anything about programming.

Along with Mail’s seamless integration with Address Book and iCal, you can perform many of the functions of a separate contact manager, even to the scheduling of special events, which may be one of the reasons why third-party alternatives, such as Now Contact, are now history.

This isn’t to say Mail is perfect. It can sometimes crash if a message contains HTML code it doesn’t like, or just bog down when you’re trying to quit the app. But Apple has clearly worked hard to eliminate Mail’s worst ills. What’s left is a speedy, predictable and reliable app that can probably serve the needs for the larger portion of email users.

Microsoft’s Outlook is going to have to be a truly excellent alternative to gain traction beyond the core complement of existing users of Outlook for Windows who want a capable Mac counterpart.

Yes, there are loads of other email apps out there. Just this week, I took a stab at the latest version of GyazMail, a shareware app that offers a credible feature set. But I fail to see that it performs any key function better than Mail. Indeed, when it comes to updating large message folders, it’s rather slow.

For users of Eudora, a venerable email app that’s long gone, there is a version derived from Mozilla’s Thunderbird that basically gets a slight theme change to emulate the look and feel of the original. MailForge, another shareware product, was originally offered as a ground-up recreation of the features that made Eudora popular. But perhaps the biggest reason some of you still prefer Eudora is the fact that, at one time, there wasn’t much else available with a decent feature set, and you’re already used to its look and feel.

For me, I’m sticking with Apple Mail for now, though I am always open to trying alternatives in the hope that there’s actually something better out there.