The Future of Email on OS X

Last Thursday was a sad day for Sparrow users ’round the world. The company announced, in quite a surprise turn, that it had been acquired by Google and that any new features for their Mac and iOS apps will no longer be developed – presumably because the team are now busy overhauling the default Gmail client with some of Sparrow’s fancy features.

Sparrow was one of the leading examples of the innovative apps on the App Store that helps make OS X a better platform for everyone. Plus, it was one of the few email apps that actually worked better than the alternatives. So what does all this mean for the future of email on OS X?

When a Sparrow Falls

Sparrow-Acquired-by-Google-620x336

Sparrow was acquired by Google last week for an undisclosed sum and no future features for Sparrow’s Mac and iOS apps will be developed.

When the news of Sparrow’s acquisition first broke, I, for one, was a little angry at the change (expressing my true anger would make this article definitely NSFW), and it seems that I was not alone in my thoughts. There are plenty of other commentators around the ‘net who have expressed their anger at this change, presumably because the developers at Sparrow are now dedicating all their resources towards Google, not their own projects. As I had shelled out around $13 of my hard-earned cash to Sparrow for the privelege of owing their programs on my Mac and iPhone, the move made me, at least, feel a little betrayed – especially seeing as I will see no new features in future releases, just the standard bug fixes.

Other Email Apps Aren’t Dead, but They Feel Ancient

So, what does this mean for the future of e-mail on OS X? Well thankfully, there are at least a couple of lights at the end of the tunnel. Of course, you can always stick to the default option of Mail.app on OS X or go for one of the many alternatives (Postbox, for example), but the problem with these is they don’t really do anything completely differently. I don’t really like the default e-mail app in OS X, and because I use an Exchange-based email system, my only real option is Microsoft Outlook, which I grabbed along with Office 2011 for Mac at a discounted student price. Mail.app never worked perfectly with the Exchange based email system, even marking read emails as unread, forcing me to stick with Microsoft’s email app that’s more aimed at the enterprise than individual users.

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As someone who uses an Exchange-based mail system, Outlook is often my only other alternative to Mail.app for full support.

But at the end of the day, most of the email clients available for Mac nowadays are all largely the same old approach to email we’ve always seen. Apple’s own Mail.app has had a few new features added to it over the past two versions of OS X, but that was just to make it look like the iPad client (which I also don’t like – I’m a tough guy to please, by the way). It’s still basically the same email we’ve always known, without any major innovation. And, after all, we are Mac users so we want something new and innovative – if we didn’t then we wouldn’t have bought a Mac. That’s why Mac users took to Sparrow so quickly: it really was innovative, bringing the best of Gmail together with the best of native OS X apps, which made quite the killer combo.

So it begs the question: what’s in store for email on OS X?

.Mail – The Next Sparrow?

The first alternative is dotmailapp (or .Mail) which promises to reinvent mail as we know it. According to the .Mail team, email hasn’t changed much since the 1970s, when the first email was sent, which is of course debatable, but it’s sure hopeful when an email app team recognizes the need for change. Apart from its gorgeous interface and website (which brings tears of joy to your eyes if you’re hoping for a better-than-Sparrow email app), it promises Actionsteps, which are designed to help you prioritise your email a lot easier through simple clicks and differently shaded squares, a dark red one for important and a light red one for those not so important.

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Actionsteps in dotmailapp is an approach to e-mail never really seen before.

What’s more, it’s being designed by Tobias van Schneider, a German art director and user interface designer, and it started out as a design concept that was then anounced to the world as an upcoming real email app. As such, .Mail has really got a touch of class and style in there, unlike other email clients which tend to prioritise functionality over aesthetics. These both are things I feel should really, at least on the Mac platform, go hand in hand with each other. Many clients seem to sacrifice one for the other and the results can sometimes be undesirable – you’ve either got a really stylish e-mail client that doesn’t really do anything or a really powerful one with tonnes of great features that looks like the back end of a bus.

It remains to be seen how much real innovation they can bring to email, but the concepts look very promising already, especially for those of us that are tired of looking at slight iterations of the same old email UI.

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The interface in the upcoming dotmailapp is drop dead gorgeous – clean, simplistic and easy to use.

Or Maybe You Want a Pilot for Your Email

Another email app in the works is Mail Pilot, an app that also looks very promising for a new take on email. It is currently backed by over 1,600 people on the funding platform Kickstarter and has received around $54,000 worth of pledges (much more than the planned $35,000). This project, however, is a lot bolder approach to redesigning email than .Mail. Instead of reading e-mails one by one, Mail Pilot acts ore like a task manager, marking new messages as uncompleted tasks. You then read through that e-mail and mark it off as complete once you’ve finished with it.

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Mail Pilot processes your e-mail like a task manager, with incoming e-mails being marked as “to review”.

Any messages that are marked off as complete are then archived automatically to try to avoid any inbox clutter. If an e-mail arrives and you don’t have time for it at that particular moment, you can mark it down for review and Mail Pilot will automatically remind you in a period of time (which is set by you) to look at it again. Thsi should help ensure that none of your emails are ever forgotten before you’ve taken action on them! The other great feature about Mail Pilot is that is works with virtually every single mail account, so you aren’t tied down to any particular platform. Oddly, though, it looks like Mail Pilot will be a subscription based web app with native apps for OS X among other platforms, so it’s hard to say how well it will really feel on the Mac.

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait … We Hope

Unfortunately for us consumers, there’s no public betas for both of the clients I’ve looked at today, but I’m told that they will be arriving sometime “this summer”. Hopefully that means that, come the end of August we’ll be able to test them both out. However, given the exciting new features and intuitive workflow pattern demonstrated in the applications featured above, it can definitely be said that the future of e-mail really is on OS X. We really do need a different way of dealing with our e-mails – I dread it when I’m hovering over the Lotus Notes icon on my desktop on Monday morning at work and it often takes me a good hour to work through my backlog.

I’d certainly be looking for a new way of sorting through my e-mails and I’m sure I’m not alone on this front. How often do we spend at home, work or in our spare time just looking through and trying to deal with all those little unread items in our inbox? With these two fantastic projects currently in progress, the future is looking bright. And I’m sure it’ll be a relief to almost everyone to see that innovation on OS X from indie dev teams is far from dead!

Oh, and if anyone from Google’s reading this, please don’t buy out either of these projects unless you really plan to ship their Mac apps. And we still wouldn’t mind if you kept developing Sparrow!


  • byubay

    Best article I’ve been reading here in a while.

    Very disappointed with Sparrow’s decision. Already returned to Apple Mail, but I’m looking forward to .Mail.

    Once again, congrats for a well written article.

  • John

    It seems the Sparrow community was upset as well. They crucified the Sparrow app on the app store after 195 users gave it 1 star.

  • Krol

    Mail Pilot got ugly icons and questionable UI. I’ll wait for .Mail.
    Till then Sparrow works fine.
    BTW, you’ve got .Mac instead of .Mail in one of your headers.

  • http://papermail.me Jacob Penderworth

    Mail Pilot is the worst beta I’ve ever used. It has so many bugs and a terrible user interface with little contrast throughout. They had a good idea, but the execution isn’t going so well.

    • http://twitter.com/viralbee Justin Beausoleil

      I had to ask for a refund. There were too many major bugs. The thing was unusable! They should not be charging at this point. Hugely disappointed with Mail Pilot. I really had high hopes.

  • Balint

    I agree with you in every point. I got sad and really angry when I got to know Sparrow has made it’s nest in Google. Also thank you for directing me to these new alternatives. Looking forward to the future now :)

  • niblettes

    I recently spent a lot of time evaluating Sparrow, Postbox, Thunderbird, Outlook, and Mac.Mail. Basically they all suck — which is shocking given that email is so simple and we’ve been doing it for so long. I eventually picked Thunderbird because it sucked the least (barely). Sparrow in particular might be fine to emailing your friends photos of your cat, but its too Mickey Mouse and too inflexible for business.

    You complained about the old way to do email — yet you don’t provide any evidence. What specifically is wrong with the old way (other than its the old way)?? Your whole post reads like a plea for novelty for novelty’s sake., which isn’t terribly helpful.

  • http://www.thegraphicmac.com Jimm

    I just don’t get the love-affair with Sparrow. It did absolutely NOTHING that wasn’t already built-in to Apple’s Mail. I’ll grant you that it LOOKED a little nicer, but functionally it brought nothing new to the table.

    Now if we’re only comparing Gmail apps, then yes, Sparrow was nice. But again, there were better Gmail apps out there (Mailplane).

    Thunderbird is dead, which means Postbox is dead. Doesn’t matter because while both were more feature-packed than any email app, both were bloated crap to actually use.

    • kjvdven

      I liked the shortcut for moving mail! To be honest, I liked the gMail shortcuts a lot and the app felt snappy.

      Apple Mail feels like you have to use the mouse, I like to keep my mouse time limited.
      Thunderbird & Postbox are slow, sluggish, etc. (no plugins installed)

  • Steve

    I actually went back to Snow Leopard, and this was one of the main reasons why. I wasn’t happy with sparrow either. Apple’s Mail got WORSE in Lion, not better. I went back to SL so that I could use a number of plugins which had been developed to make the email experience better, namely Flagit and Widemail. With those two installed I was quite happy with Apple’s Mail. However from Lion onward it doesn’t even use bold/unbold to let me know which messages are already read, which to me was absolute deal breaker, and also the reason I didn’t like Sparrow or Postbox.

    bottom line, all the email apps on mac now suck from Lion on. Sparrow had nice features, but in my opinion it wasn’t that great either, I don’t care if they want to get money from Google, go for it. Apple could easily make their own Mail app the Bees Knees with just a few tweaks and end the problem forever.

  • http://iynque.com iynque

    Even if Google continues to develop Sparrow and make it a great Mac app, I just can’t have Google software on my Mac. The license terms aren’t great and being forced to have Google Updater running and installing whatever Google wants on my computer is unacceptable.

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Well, since Sparrow was sold through the App Store, that shouldn’t be too big of a problem…

  • Ben Singleton

    Part of the problem is email is slow, boring and as repetitive as reading and typing. I’ve used them all in the list, and actually for about 6 years only used Eudora. The main thing for me was there was no re-learning.

    Once you find a system of signatures, standard formats and best practice that works for you, they are all pretty much the same. Just don’t change them. Even the minor changes the new OS has done to Mac Mail are slowing me down.

    I dream of a better system. I spend 8 hours a day just reading and composing post, and not once in 15 years of doing that have I felt at one with the interface, and in harmony with the dialogue between myself and the client (physical, and virtual).

  • Asmahan

    I hear that they started working full force on Persona.

    Personamail.info

    This was announced more than year ago but was put on hold until lately.

  • Yehohanan82

    What about Postbox ? It seems to have a nice features list.
    And what about Fluent ? It seems to have great workflows.

    • David Rogoff

      I’ve been using Postbox for a long time now, leaving Thunderbird when pretty much all development stopped (when they split from Firefox). However, I’m now looking for a new program – which is how I found this site and thread.

      They used to be great about helping users and fixing bugs. But, I just checked on a couple of bug reports I put in over a year ago on their support page and they were closed. I created followups to them but those closed instantly too! There’s no menu item to create a new one anymore. There’s no contact info in the program anymore – just a simple list of 4 things to check under Troubleshooting.

      I just found their post (http://support.postbox-inc.com/entries/21694767-how-to-get-help-with-postbox_ from a few weeks ago telling all customers not to contact them!

      Now, I’ve got 2-year-old bugs that haven’t been fixed and they’re telling customers “you’re on your own”. So, it’s time to look for another company/program. Oh – and they don’t even let people post on their FB page – people can only respond to your their. What’s that about?

      So, what other programs have good iMAP support, allow editing of messages, and can file messages in folders or switch folders quickly with key shortcuts? Plugin support would be good too.

  • http://seandillonsmith.com Sean

    .Mail has me really excited, I love the very modern simple minimalistic design, a few features I would have to have in it to carry over to it from postbox would be a quick reply function like postbox has and the ability to completely customize the font sizes and window sizes, something that is lacking in Apple Mail.

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  • http://twitter.com/alvasrawuther Alvas Rawuther

    I love the way how .Mail is designed, its beautiful and looks a lot more functional to me than any other mail app I’ve ever seen. Designers always change things.

  • chaicup

    I am waiting for .dotmailapp but came across another app which has lots of similarity with .dotmaillapp. It’s called Turbine: http://useturbine.com/

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Cool, I hadn’t seen that yet. Looks like it’s going to be iPad only, though.

  • Andreas

    FYI, there is another very Sparrow-like mail app on the horizon: It’s called Air Mail and it’s currently in public beta. I’ve been testing it for a few weeks, and it’s really coming into shape with updates every few days or so. Check it out: http://airmailapp.info/

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