What's Great And What Stinks In The New Apple Mail - InformationWeek

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Commentary
11/5/2007
12:25 AM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
Commentary
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What's Great And What Stinks In The New Apple Mail

While the young people nowadays are all about their "instant messaging," and "social networks," e-mail is still the switchboard through which most of my business communication flows. Apple Mail 3, the upgraded mail client included in Mac OS X Leopard, is a very good mail client and a significant improvement over previous versions. It has a few features I love, some I hate, and some that are frustrating because they're good but could be so much better.

While the young people nowadays are all about their "instant messaging," and "social networks," e-mail is still the switchboard through which most of my business communication flows. Apple Mail 3, the upgraded mail client included in Mac OS X Leopard, is a very good mail client and a significant improvement over previous versions. It has a few features I love, some I hate, and some that are frustrating because they're good but could be so much better.

What's Great

Linking to individual mail messages: Apple Mail 3 lets you create a link from an external application back to an individual mail message.

When I get an e-mail that I need to take action on, if I can't get to work on it right away, I add it to my to-do list, with a link back to the original mail message. Later, when it's time to start the new task, I click on the link and the appropriate message opens in Mail. Very handy for staying organized.

Likewise: If I receive an e-mail containing information about an upcoming meeting, I create an appointment in iCal and then drop the e-mail on the appointment. A link to the e-mail appears in the appointment. Click on the link and the original e-mail appears. Sweet!

This is a wonderful feature.

Data Detectors: Apple Mail 3 automatically detects text fragments, such as appointments and addresses, and lets you click on that text and create a new contact, map an address, or create an iCal event. I've only played with this a little, but it's quite impressive, and helpful with the endless and impossible task of keeping my address book up-to-date.

Mail 3's built-in RSS reader: I use Google Reader as my primary RSS reader for hundreds of feeds. But it's nice to have a few feeds close at hand on my desktop. I use Mail 3's RSS reader to stay on top of InformationWeek's own RSS feed, as well as comment feeds for blogs that offer that capability.

Improved search: Search was broken in previous versions of Mail, but it works pretty well in Mail 3. You can search on the mail sender or subject line, limit the search to individual mailboxes, and more.

What Stinks

The Notes feature: Including notes in the e-mail app makes no sense. Apple says many people use e-mail to write notes to themselves, so therefore they included a notepad as part of the e-mail application. But people who use e-mail to write notes to themselves are evil and should not be pandered to.

Seriously, if I want to write a note to myself, I do it as a plain text file and store it in a regular folder.

Adding notes to e-mail is like putting a hairdryer on a riding mower. Sure, I suppose some people comb their hair while mowing the lawn -- but enough to actually marry the two machines together?

To-dos in mail: Good idea, badly implemented. I was excited when I first heard about this, because I'm trying to consolidate all my to-dos into one list. Before I upgraded to Leopard, I had two to-do lists: The actual to-do list, and a list of flagged e-mail requiring further action. Having two lists is a bad idea; I'd sometimes find myself tending to a relatively important task on my to-do list while forgetting about an important e-mail that required action. Or vice-versa.

So I really loved the idea of being able to convert e-mails to to-dos.

But I quickly soured on using Apple Mail for the job, because the to-do/e-mail integration is implemented badly. You right-click on the body of the message and select "new to-do." A new frame opens up in your e-mail message, where you can type your to-do. So far, so good. And the to-do frame is really very attractive, with a yellow background (like a legal pad), and an attractive handwriting font. Colors are yellow, orange and red. Everything looks like it was written neatly with a felt-tip marker.

But after you've typed a few words, everything you typed disappears, and your mouse cursor is no longer focused on the to-do frame. You have to click again, and begin typing again. After that, of course, you're no longer confident that your to-do will actually be saved, so you have to switch to iCal to make sure the to-do is there

Also, if you're using IMAP for e-mail, you can't create tasks in any of your existing calendars on your Mac desktop. You can only use a calendar linked to your IMAP account. Too many calendars! To confusing!

My frustration with the Mail/to-do integration had a happy ending: It drove me to start investigating other time-management applications, and I eventually started using iGTD, which I'm happy with so far.

IMAP integration is tough to figure out, at least with Gmail: I covered this in some depth in a blog post last week. Since then, I've encountered a couple more problems:

  • Some folders corresponding to Gmail labels don't automatically update with new mail; I have to click on them first. Other folders apparently do automatically update. I haven't been able to figure out the pattern.

  • Messages appear duplicated in smart folders.

  • I don't like the way Mail sorts folders by accounts; I'd rather be able to create my own hierarchy -- for example, most important mail folders at the top, less important at the bottom. I can use smart folders as a limited workaround for that.

Stationery: Apple's Leopard Mail new features page says: "Choose from more than 30 professionally designed stationery templates that make a virtual keepsake out of every e-mail you send." Translated to plain English: Get ready to receive even more butt-ugly, visually cluttered e-mail.

E-mail should be plain text, and only plain text. It's not that I'm against graphics, design, and formatting -- I just don't think they have any business in e-mail. Formatting and graphics are like the F-word: Fine in some places (Kevin Smith movies, bachelor parties), inappropriate in others (InformationWeek, your seven-year-old niece's birthday celebration).

Apple Mail also includes more rich formatting options than previous versions, and the ability for users to create custom stationery. Make it stop. Please, make it stop.

Apple Mail 3.0 is one of the best e-mail applications available on any platform, and it's a significant improvement over previous versions. I know this review sounds a bit lukewarm, but that's because e-mail itself is broken, for reasons that have been discussed in depth elsewhere. We've gotten pretty good at filtering out spam and viruses, but we're still inundated with messages about things we're just not interested in, which overwhelm the few -- but important -- messages about things we are interested in. Apple Mail 3 does nothing to help with information overload, and that's the fundamental problem of e-mail today. Still, for what it is, Apple Mail 3 does a really good job.

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