E-mail needs a kick to the head

This entry has been sitting in 'draft' mode for a few days. And today, I happened across Bloomba (I found it via this News.com article). It's a new e-mail management tool. It's right in line with what I'm talking about in this post. It doesn't provide all the features I'm looking for, but it's very close. And now, I'll resume my essay. Read it, download Bloomba and compare.

The more I think about e-mail the more I am amazed. Amazed at the sheer lack of innovation to this medium. It's something we all use. I rely on e-mail communication even more the phone (not that there's been that much innovation in telephones either of late).

I have no time to write an e-mail client, so I'll write what I want and maybe there's a chance that someone at Microsoft or Mozilla or Qualcomm will take note. It's a long shot, but it's all I have time for today. Here's what I would like to see.

The biggest problem I have with e-mail (aside from the spam issue which I won't address at all) is that my Inbox is always full. I hate that. I try to clear it out-- shuffle this message to that folder. Try to categorize each e-mail I receive into a neat little set of folders. It's work. It shouldn't be.

The e-mail client storage paradigm has always been about putting little bits of content into little folders. That needs to change. The e-mail client should instead handle the e-mail content as a database. Once you take that view, there's a lot you can do. For one, you don't have to stare at an 'Inbox' that gets longer by the minute. You can view your e-mail content in any number of ways. Enable and disable filtering options and so forth.

Consider the following filters (some could be built-in, others could be user-defined):

  • New e-mail (receipt date is within 24 hours or mail status is un-opened)
  • Unanswered e-mail
  • Mail from friends (from address matches within 'Friends' group)
  • 'MT-Textile' related mail (message content contains 'textile')

For example, perhaps I want to view new, unanswered and is MT-Textile related. Well, that's just a matter of applying filters 1, 2 and 4.

Of course, you could still create a hierarchical set of folders and categorize mail messages into those too. In fact, you could file messages into multiple folders if that makes sense to you.

Another feature I'd like to see is virtual folders. The most obvious one being 'from' address. This would be a dynamic view of my messages, arranged by sender. Each folder would list all the messages sent by a particular person. It should even list the messages that I sent to that individual.

The other big shortcoming in today's e-mail software is the lack of threaded messaging. Why don't e-mail clients make better use of the 'Message-Id' and 'In-Reply-To' headers? For every e-mail I originate, I want to see an outline view of the discussion that spawned. Replies, replies to replies and so forth. I know the 'In-Reply-To' header isn't always available, so perhaps at the very least, my mail client could offer me the ability to manually define the relationship: "this message is a response to that message". That would be so incredibly useful.

Now, let's get back to Bloomba. It's got real potential. I like the ability to do flexible searches and to save them as custom "Views." And unfortunately, the place where the "View" is saved within the list of folders defines the scope of the search. I like the ability to define categories and to assign them to posts. It has an option to view e-mail messages by thread, but it makes assumptions based on the subject line content and that doesn't always work. Here's how Bloomba can be my perfect e-mail client:

  • Display all known e-mail addresses in a virtual folder ("Addresses" or something would be a good title). Clicking on one of these addresses would display a list of all the messages that have been sent to or received from that address. The 'Compose' toolbar button would create a new message, pre-filled for that address.
  • Allow custom views to be saved anywhere within the list of folders. The scope of the view should be persistent inside the view itself. By making the scope of the search dependent on where the view is saved, it means the user will clutter the 'root' folder with a ton of different views. For example, I want to create a "Projects" folder that simply has views for each project I work on.
  • Views and Folders need to be movable. Right now, I can't move a view or a folder from one folder to another.
  • Allow e-mail messages to be linked to other e-mails. The association can be both automated and manual. Automated association happens with the headers are present: In-Reply-To matches a Message-Id of some other message. Failing that, manual association can be done (or can be used to override the automated association). One level deep at a minimum (this would define a person-to-person conversation). Multiple-levels would allow for a multi-party, threaded discussion. The ability to print/export/forward or otherwise manipulate an entire set of e-mails that have been associated together like this would be wonderful too.

Unfortunately, Bloomba's biggest mistake is that it appears to store it's data in a proprietary format. If it had an option to store data in some kind of regular database (MySQL or something else that could be accessed easily), that would be perfect.

Bloomba is still in beta, so I hope some of these ideas might find their way into the first release.

While we're on the subject, what features do you think are missing from your e-mail software? Or maybe you've found the perfect e-mail package I've been looking for? Do share.

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TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference E-mail needs a kick to the head:

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11 Comments

Arve said:

Hm. For some reason the trackback ping I sent didn't show up here. Since I hope my experience is useful: I have found an e-mail client that actually works.

David Raynes said:

All I'll say is that I love Mutt. With all the mailing lists that I'm on, I'd give up if I didn't have it's threading feature.

hdanniel said:

I totally agree with Arve. Did you try M2?. Ok, the threading feature is missing but when i read the other features you need i thought on M2. And the spam filter works fine too.

Arve said:

M2 does thread mail. On the top row, there is a few icons. The leftmost two of these toggle between flat and threaded mode. You can alternatively press "View", next to "Quick find".

Brad Author Profile Page said:

I took a look at M2 tonight. Pretty nice. I like the persistent searches, the label options, etc. It has the automatic threading, but no way to thread manually.

And maybe I'm doing something wrong, but the date filtering doesn't seem to be working. If I set it to just view 'Today', it's still showing all e-mail messages, regardless of date. It also doesn't seem to preserve the sort order (I have to keep restoring the order to the 'Sent' column from newest to oldest).

And what's the deal with the columns? I can't resize them? And for some reason it didn't process any attachments properly. Does it not like my IMAP server (Courier IMAP) or something? None of the other e-mail clients I've used have had any problem with it.

Still, it looks pretty cool. I'll have to watch for the next point release. Hopefully some of these bugs will get squashed by then.

milbertus said:

Now that you mention it, e-mail clients could have a lot of improvments to just make them work. I sadly don't know of any clients for you to try (I use Outlook, which is "good enough"), but I'm very interested in a SQL-based mail client. It could even allow the user to write SQL queries to define views, and possibly a "view writer", which would do the work of writing the SQL for you.

If only I had the time to write such a thing....

jfournier said:

Even though it's old, and not for singular use, lotus notes provides all of these features (I think). I know it stores all email as a database, and I know you can design views, etc against it. It also supports permissions on the database so that certain email can eb shared with others, etc. It does threaded email, etc, shows all messages with attachements, and more. Hard to get used to, but an interesting client.

Ole said:

Brad, have you heard about Zoe (http://guests.evectors.it/zoe/)? I never tried it myself, so I don't really know what I'm talking about. And I don't know how many of your requests it addresses.

But Zoe's approach is very interesting: "to do for email what Google did for the web": simple interface, no hierarchical organisation whatsoever, you simply tell it what you're looking for and Zoe will display it.

Owen said:

I actually find Mail.app (under OS X) works very well for this. While it still maintains the folder paradigm, Apple has integrated their "search-anything" idea into it. I find it very useful to be able to dynamically search my messages, and to have them ranked by relevance.

Andrew Hill said:

http://ximian.com/products/evolution/

Althought it's for linux, Ximian Evolution definitely meets a lot of your demands. It looks like a MS Outlook clone at first, but it's worked wonders for my inbox.

Ian said:

I have played with both Zoe and M2, seduced by the database nature of these products. Zoe is fantastic, client/server structure, SMTP proxy to allow remote collection of sent mails. The server means you have an effective web-access mail database. It can group and relate mails based on domains, and seperates out mailing lists, and groups attachments for the day. It is really worth playing with, but I did miss the more flexible (tangible) nature of a local client, which is where M2 steps in.

M2 really is great, I agree with everything Arve mentions in his post, having a client that easily and dynamically threads recieved/sent mail with my contacts without building multiple filters (even in a great client like The Bat!) is wonderful. But I also find the missing functionality in the Opera 7 UI persistently annoying (e.g. remember ascending/descending sort orders over sessions). I really do hope these small UI issues get resolved, as it will make M2 (which is a tiny 180kb! .DLL) perfect (oh, and a commandline switch to start Opera in 'mail' mode).

note:All these database options don't seems to use generic storage formats, thus making possible future migration away from them potentially problematic

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This article was published on February 20, 2003 5:20 PM.

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