Mail and Just Working — Not!

December 3rd, 2014

Consider this very simple process, or would should be a very simple process. You want to add an account to Apple Mail — and it works essentially the same in all recent versions — so you start by entering your name,  email address and password. At this point, Mail determines whether your settings can be entered automatically or not.

Now if you have one of those free email systems, such as AOL, Gmail, iCloud or Outlook, the app already has the settings to configure the account. This is also true for a Microsoft Exchange Server, so these are listed separately. But when it comes with a regular company email account, or maybe the one provided with your web hosting service, consigned to the “other” category, Mail hasn’t a clue. That’s true even if the mail server has autoconfig and autodiscover settings, which are used to feed an email client the correct settings for incoming and outgoing servers plus a few other odds and ends.

The long and short of it is that, if I want to configure Mail to handle the accounts from our server, it’s mostly a manual process. After the account is created, I have to return and fix such arcane entries as the port number for SSL, which is usually entered incorrectly for incoming email.

Now I use IMAP, which stores the messages on the server for easy syncing among all devices I use. For this scheme to work properly, I have to manually map the local email folders to the ones on the server for Sent, Drafts, Junk and Trash; they are labeled differently on some email systems. Trust me, this is important, especially for Sent. Otherwise, the messages I send from my iPhone won’t show up on the server, so they’ll be missing in action on my iMac or my wife’s iPad.

With me so far?

Setting up an email account on an iOS device essentially involves the very same steps made via the Settings interface on your iPhone or iPad. I’ve also tried adding this same collection of accounts on Android devices, a pair of Samsung smartphones, with different email apps. I had to slog through far more configuration options to complete an account setup. I won’t even begin to list the extra choices that some believe makes Android a superior platform. It is the polar opposite of just working, though Apple isn’t much better.

Now the email system we use is nothing special. The web server is managed by cPanel, a very popular control panel system used on a large number of servers worldwide. It leverages a lot of popular open source software in a fairly simple graphical interface. So I’d think a properly-designed email client would figure it all out for you.

It’s a tad better with Microsoft’s Outlook for Mac. But even the beta version posted recently for Office 365 subscribers still requires you do a lot of the stuff yourself. It does seem, though, that Outlook can guess which mailboxes on the server to link to at least. In that respect, it’s better than Mail, though performance is awful with larger mailboxes.

Well, on Tuesday morning, I downloaded the latest version of Mozilla’s Thunderbird, a mail client that mostly receives minor updates these days, and decided to see how it fared in setting up my email accounts. To my surprise, the process was almost entirely automatic. After entering my address and password, Thunderbird got most of the rest correct. I did have to make a few custom settings so junk mail would flow into the proper Junk folder and all, but it seemed to work properly in nearly every respect as far as configuration was concerned.

The lone glitch was identifying the Junk folder for my Gmail account incorrectly. It listed it as Junk instead Spam on Gmail, but that’s a small problem. For the most part, Thunderbird is doing what it appears Mail and Outlook cannot do, which is to configure a collection of different email accounts correctly with minimal configuration.

So are Apple’s OS X and iOS developers even paying attention? Yes, your accounts on one device will kind of/sort of transfer to other devices when you set them up with iCloud. Well sometimes. When I recently restored an iPhone from scratch, none of the email accounts were added, but the accounts on my iMac are almost always duplicated on the MacBook Pro. Even then, I have to go through individual settings to match them up, and I’m sure most people would just not bother. If things aren’t perfect, they’ll put up with the situation.

Now I suppose you might think that I switched to Thunderbird, but I didn’t. I just do not like the look and the feel, nor the way settings are laid out. I appreciate the fact that all of my email accounts can be added with only minor tweaks, but that’s all.

What I wonder is why the people at Mozilla who work on Thunderbird can devise a mostly workable automatic email account configuration scheme, but not Apple or Microsoft. Or maybe Apple’s developers just not taking into consideration the fact that millions of people use email accounts that aren’t owned by AOL, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

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