June 29, 2009
With GMail being five years old, I can't understand why desktop email clients haven't taken any cues on how to build a good email interface. Specific examples of GMail shining over desktop mail clients include:
Message Thread Handling: While most mail clients thread messages within a single folder, they typically don't group together messages across folders. So, if a thread consists of ten messages, it is likely that some of those messages are in your "Sent" folder, others are your "Inbox" folder, and perhaps others were filed into a "from [sender]" folder. This makes it difficult to reconstruct a thread. GMail keeps messages together by thread, and shows you the contents of the entire thread on a single page.
Muting a Thread: GMail allows you, with just one click, to "Mute" a thread. This archives it, and (more importantly) keeps notifications of new messages in that thread from appearing in your inbox. This is great for stopping long threads that aren't relevant to you from interrupting your workflow.
Message Focus: GMail hides both quoted text and message header information by default. So, the user can easily focus on the content of the message, and away from the components of the message that typically don't warrant attention.
Reply/Reply All: While in the midst of composing a message reply, GMail allows you to easily change whether your reply should be sent to other recipients of the message. Just click "Reply" or "Reply to all", and the recipient list of your reply is updated. You don't need to copy and paste the addresses or start with a new message window in order to change this.
Using a hosted service like GMail has many advantages, and many disadvantages. But none of the features listed above are any less feasible on a desktop mail client than they are on a hosted web application.
The point of this post is not to advocate using GMail. If you're working for a company that has its own internal mail server, it is likely that trade secrets, customer information, and other non-public information regularly come into your mailbox. Under such circumstances, it is inappropriate to entrust Google (or any other third party service provider) with that email if your employer has not explicitly chosen to. The point of this post is to ask: why haven't desktop email clients caught up?