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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!