Rethinking Email

I have been a long-time Gmail user and prefer using their web interface for my personal email, which I love for a number of reasons. For instance, when receiving a new reply to an archived email, the entire conversation is always shown, regardless of where the individual emails are located.

On the professional side of things, I use Apple Mail, which I am sorry to say is starting to get fairly outdated. It does not have the above mentioned feature where email replies are automatically shown together regardless of location. It doesn’t even support using SSL client certificates for connecting to the email server. The latter can fortunately be remedied by using stunnel as a proxy.

Thunderbird

I have used Thunderbird ages ago, so I decided to install the new version and add both my personal and professional email account and see what has happened these last major versions. To my surprise, Thunderbird has been cleaned up considerably and has lots of new features like tabs, smart folders and a unified inbox.

The coolest new feature in Thunderbird 3 has to be the new search interface. It is just a beauty to see the data mining ability and the ease of refining the search terms as you go. There is for instance the possibility to visually drill down on the year, month and day to find just the thing you are looking for.

Thunderbird Search
Thunderbird Search

Then I recalled trying out Postbox a while ago when it was in beta. It is a commercial fork of Thunderbird, with its own unique set of features and looks, and although many Thunderbird plugins work with Postbox, not all do. I ended up giving this some thought.

What can a commercial company do with Thunderbird that the Mozilla foundation can not do themselves?

I decided to yet again give it a go. The installation is as easy as it can be on the Mac — just drag the application to the applications folder and you are done. The account set-up was super easy, with most things detected automatically, and that even includes the work account. Being a Thunderbird derivate, I knew that it would support SSL client certificates, so I just added mine and it worked instantly.

Postbox
Postbox

The interface of Postbox looks a lot like Thunderbird, but there are some not-so-subtle differences too. First of all is the polish — Postbox looks and feels more like a commercial product with its clean interface and modern color palette. The only interface section I liked better in Thunderbird is the main toolbar, which is a lot cleaner. It mostly has to do with Thunderbird having support for showing button labels beside the icons instead of below. That small setting makes all the difference in the world, esthectially speaking.

The first technical thing I noticed was that there is only one folder view — you have your accounts on the top, and the folders (including the inbox), changes below depending on the account you select at the top.

I am not a big fan of unified inboxes, and I had a hard time finding a view I like in Thunderbird (not to mention Apple Mail). Postbox, while only having this single view, get how people work with email. Having personal and professional mail in the same unified inbox just adds to the clutter and distractions we try so hard to get rid of.

Making the accounts completely separate is the perfect recipe for me, and lets me focus on one thing at a time, while not being distracted by Facebook alerts or Twitter messages and other things that may pop up in my personal inbox.

Thunderbird Single message
Thunderbird Single message

The conversation view in Postbox is excellent too. It works exactly like in Gmail, with collapsible replies and a beautiful interface. There is also this thread and message summary to the right of the message which collects all links, photos, files and other types of attachments for easy access.

Postbox for some reason, even has integrated support for posting to Twitter and Facebook. While I would use a dedicated application for this like Tweetdeck or Echofon, I will definitely try it out and see what they have done with it.

A last thing to mention about Postbox is the built-in tagging support. If you would like to tag email with certain action tied to them like “Follow Up”, “Waiting For” or other tags, it is possible to do so without having to resort to putting these emails in separate folders.

Postbox Single message
Postbox Single message

If you are not into sorting incoming email to different project folders, you will definitely enjoy the archive feature, which is available in Thunderbird as well. Pressing “a” will move the selected messages into the archive, which is a regular email folder. The thinking behind this is that since Postbox and Thunderbird index all email, you could just search for what you want.

I am personally fond of having separate folders for different projects and mailing lists. Everything else is put into the generic “archives” folder.

The latest version also features support for Things and Omnifocus, which means that it now is as easy as using Apple Mail to get emails into your GTD in-basket of choice!

If you want to purchase Postbox, please consider using my Postbox referral link. This will save you $10, and you will support this site too!

9 thoughts on “Rethinking Email”

  1. Today I use Gmail for all my e-mail accounts. My Google app mail for my own domain and fetch all my mail to the same account.

    I have tried Postbox and I found its resemblance to Gmail great, and it is definitively the best desktop client I have tested.

    But what I lack in your article is the reasoning for the use of desktop clients instead of web clients? Why the need of desktop clients at all, when gmail is so superior?

    /Anton

    1. That is a very valid question, and I should have mentioned it in the article.

      First of all, I love the Gmail web interface, but there are certain things that offline email clients still do better.

      For instance, the general snappiness and the ease of moving email and folders around. Just doing things in Gmail takes additional time compared to Postbox.

      Second, the OS integration you get from having a local client is still lots better than using a webmail. You can just drag pictures, documents and everything to the Postbox dock icon, fill in the recipient and just hit send. In Gmail you have to first go to the website, maybe log in, wait for the web interface to load, then create a new mail, then click on the upload button, upload the files, and fill in the recipient and send the email. It’s just too much work.

      Then there is the security aspect of it too. Not Gmail in particular, just webmail in general. Say to want to sign the email using a X509 certificate or GPG key — that is not realistically possible in a webmail environment.

      Lastly, my work mail is IMAP based and forces SSL client certificates, so I have to use an offline client to be able to read mail.

      Lastly 2, you can use it offline. Sure, there is Gears and html5 webstorage, but having a local client is much easier, and you have access to all email, not just the latest ones, and everything is still searchable.

      Finally, I still use Gmail, but the IMAP interface instead. Of course I can use the webmail part too if I am using another computer or similar.

      Sorry for the lengthy reply, but those are the main reasons for being old-fashioned and still use a normal email client. :)

      1. I had not realized the complications of the security certificates that you mentioned. And I can also understand the desktop clients superior snappiness.

        I need to be able to access my e-mail from many different computers in my daily life. There is my own laptop, my computer at school and the computers at work. I have also grown accustomed to be able to access my e-mail from my iPhone on the go too.

        By the way, have you tried the application Mailplane? It brings drag-and-drop functionality, offline viewing and some additional integration to the Mac OS X but is still centered around the web interface. I have tried the trial, and I really liked it.

      2. If you are in need of accessing your email from lots of different places, Gmail is great! You have both Exchange sync for your iPhone and other smartphone, IMAP for your desktop client and no-so-smart-phones, and the webmail for when you have access to neither. The beauty of this is that everything is in sync, so it doesn’t matter what you do where, everything will update to reflect changes made somewhere else.

        If you get to the core of the question, you get something like this — Do I want to use the Gmail webmail when I am using my own laptop, or is there something better which is better integrated in the operating system and the workflow I want? There is no single answer, you just have to use what makes you the most productive and happy.

        I have quickly looked at Mailplane, but if you’re going to shell out $25 for an email application, I would like to be able to access all my accounts, not just Gmail. (My work mail is only available using IMAP/SSL as I mentioned.)

        Why not try out Postbox or Thunderbird for a week or two and see how you like it? Just enable IMAP access to your Gmail account and you are all set.

  2. Actually, Gmail couples with smartphones via IMAP lacks many of the advantages in the web interface that I have come to love. I tried using the mail.app with gmail at first, but the lack of conversation threading, archiving and tag-structuring was very disappointing. I am
    now using a app which couples the gmail mobile web ui with push functionality. Works great!

    I agree that 25$ is quite much for nothing more than small enhancements to the web ui.

    I think I will give Postbox another try. Last time I used it it was in beta, and had many technical flaws.

    Now that I think of it, it would be nice to have a snappier mail client :).

    (It is actually kind of funny that we, both swedes, choose to write our comments and replies in English. But well, it is an English blog after all ;))

    1. I agree that the lack of threading in the iPhone email client is enervating to say the least, but email threading is fortunately coming in iPhone OS 4 later this summer!

      It would be fun to hear what you think of Postbox, if you decide to try it. I haven’t used it that long yet either, but I just loved the way different accounts are managed in Postbox, so I will be staying with it for a while.

      Well, like you said, it’s an English blog, but it is a bit amusing to say the least! Men det är ju inget som hindrar att man skriver på svenska ibland. ;)

      1. iPhone OS 4 may be good enough for me to abandon my Gmail + Push app when it arrives.

        I took a second look at Postbox today, and I don’t really like that it handles archive in a different way than that of Gmail, and that it uses folders instead of tags. The main problem lies in folders vs tags, and I really want a desktop client that handles tags instead of folders.

        Commenting in English is not a problem to me, I do it all the time at other websites. And I think that comment sections are a great companion to a written blog post as a resource for people interested in the area. Therefore I stick to English :).

      2. You could set the archive folder to be the Gmail Archive folder I guess?

        The tags vs. folders thing is hard to reinvent, since you have to work around the limitations of IMAP. But how often do you apply more than one label to each message? :)

        English is the universal language after all. At least around here.

Leave a Reply