Why the future of email might not look so different from email today

When the word “email” springs to mind, most people think of those Monday mornings spent gazing at an endless list of messages inside Microsoft Outlook, sifting through and sorting out the useful stuff from the spam, newsletters and other promotions that somehow always end up in our inboxes. Yep, it’s true — email really is an unnecessary evil.

We think we can live without it, yet we still check our inboxes several times a day, no matter where we are — and I’m no exception. I’m pretty much married to my iPhone — as we spend almost every second of the day together — and I feel lost and disconnected when I get that dreaded “circle of death”, the GPRS indicator, meaning I can hardly access anything online.

Yet I’m always a little sceptical when developers claim that they can reinvent email. Allow me to explain why.

Reinventing the Wheel

Just over a year ago now, I wrote an article entitled The Future of Email on OS X. I wrote it as millions of Sparrow fans around the world were spewing foul-mouthed condemnations about the big bad wolf — in this case Google — for buying out their precious little company and mothballing any further development of Sparrow. Yes, I was one of them too. Sparrow had been my favourite email client both on OS X and iOS, and I was certainly sad and angry to see it go.

Sparrow's development was mothballed after it was purchased by Google back in July 2012.

Sparrow’s development was mothballed after it was purchased by Google back in July 2012.

Yet in that article, I described two new email projects, Mail Pilot and .Mail — only one of which has seen any progress since that piece was written. Mail Pilot appeared on iOS devices — albeit to negative reviews about its stability and price tag — a few months back and the developers are working hard on a Mac version, which should be ready pretty soon. The project actually started out as a fundraising exercise on Kickstarter, which raised over $54,000 in little over a month — an impressive figure when you consider the original goal was a mere $35,000.

Mail Pilot is one of the few "alternative" mail clients in active development at the moment — and there's an upcoming Mac version too.

Mail Pilot is one of the few “alternative” mail clients in active development at the moment — and there’s an upcoming Mac version too.

The principle behind Mail Pilot is simple: emails behave like to-do lists. You rank them in order of priority and mark each one as complete or incomplete. You can dismiss emails and review them at a later date, or you can scrub them away to reach that state of nirvana — namely inbox zero.

.Mail works off a similar concept — emails are given “action steps” which allows you to prioritise emails by importance. The problem is the last update to the project was back in July 2012 and there’s been no news since then, so it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing a beta version of this any time soon (despite the fact the project outline looks extremely concise).

What I’m getting at here is that developers now are prioritising a different way of working with email. The problem, according to Tobias van Schneider, developer of said .Mail app, is:

When the first email was sent in the early 1970s, there was no big difference to the email we know today. And that’s the problem.

An alternative way of working with email, I hear you cry? That’s surely an attractive prospect. A way that will avoid floods of emails coming in at once and that moment of doom when you fire up your email client to find 200 or so unread specimens awaiting to greet you? Gimme gimme gimme.

Alternative email clients on the iPad — such as Mailbox (pictured) — are too niche to catch on.

Alternative email clients on the iPad — such as Mailbox (pictured) — are too niche to catch on.

But, I’m a bit cynical here. I wrote a recent piece on iPad.AppStorm about the state of the so-called “alternative iPad email clients” and my conclusion was that developers are simply trying to reinvent the wheel. The reason that emails are the same since the 1970s is because that’s the system that has worked so well. I commend developers for putting their thinking caps on and getting creative — I’m certainly not stifling entrepreneurship and free-thinking here — but these “alternative email clients”, on the iPad anyway, will always remain a niche product as it’s extremely hard to try and convince someone who is used to the traditional way of working with email to switch to another method.

Put simply, I don’t believe that there’s a failsafe alternative to email as we know it nowadays. On my iPhone, for example, I’ve tried all sorts of different email clients: Dispatch, Triage, Boxer, Mailbox — you name it, I’ve probably tried it — and I always find myself scuttling back to my trusty iOS Mail application.

Why? There are too many compromises that I have to make — and they are compromises I’m not prepared to make. Mailbox, for example, ditches my Gmail folders, which I use slavishly. I only have the option to snooze, archive, or delete a message — there’s no way to sort them into my folders. Dispatch only lets me see my inbox folder. See what I’m getting at?

At the end of the day, though, it is purely personal taste — and I’m certainly not bad-mouthing the aforementioned apps in any way. I’m sure that there are millions of users around the world who are perfectly happy with them — I just can’t get used to them properly enough to warrant switching from the default Mail application.

The Alternatives

The current state of email on OS X is pretty good, though. Thanks to some ingenious developers, if you fancy ditching Mail.app for an alternative solution, then there are quite a few worth considering.

If you looking a different way of dealing with e-mail, then try Inky. Although the app is designed primarily for Windows 8 users in mind, there is a Mac version (though I couldn’t get it running on my computer due to Javascript issues — however don’t let this sway you!) available as well. Inky automatically sorts messages for you by relevance (though you can manually define this as well) — so important emails will appear towards the top of your inbox and less important ones will appear towards the bottom.

Inky offers an alternative (and free) take on your email.

Inky offers an alternative (and free) take on your email.

Inky also features a so-called “featured inbox”, so you can filter out all the crap in there like newsletters, daily deals and notifications from the 8 or so social networks you’re currently signed up to. You can view the aforementioned crap in one list, instead of it being scattered liberally across your inbox. It’s a nice idea (Gmail has also introduced the feature into its web interface) and it certainly helps you become more productive. What’s great also is that Inky works with a wide range of different email accounts — it supports all emails with IMAP or POP functionality — so you won’t have to change your email provider to use it.

Persona organises your email into individual conversations, and is arriving on OS X later this year.

Persona organises your email into individual conversations, and is arriving on OS X later this year.

Two projects in the pipeline, Mail Pilot aside, are Persona and Unibox — which are both currently in the private beta stage. Both of these focus your email on individual senders and turn your inbox into somewhat of an instant messaging application. This functionality is not new, mind you — most email apps currently on the market (including Apple Mail and Microsoft Outlook) allow you to sort your emails by conversation — but it will be interesting to see how both of these projects will deal differently with emails.

Airmail is currently my favourite OS X email client — and it's receiving new features almost daily.

Airmail is currently my favourite OS X email client — and it’s receiving new features almost daily.

If you’re happy with email as it is, but just fancy shying away from Apple Mail, then either Airmail or Postbox are good options to consider. Both feature a different interface to Apple Mail and some really useful little features. Airmail, for example, has Dropbox, Google Drive and (to my joy) Droplr integration baked right in to the app. Postbox features a powerful tagging system, so you don’t lose that important email, plus stellar integration with Gmail. My client of choice at the moment is Airmail, though I do change emails clients almost as often as I do my underwear, so ask me again in a week’s time and I’ll probably be giving you a different answer.

The Future

The reason that emails are the same since the 1970s is because that’s the system that has worked so well.

At the moment, therefore, email on OS X is looking pretty good — and there are a couple of really interesting projects planned for the future. I’m actually quite excited about the upcoming beta of Mail Pilot — although the iPad version was plagued with bugs and carried a stupidly high price tag ($14.99), it did show real promise and I thought that given a few tweaks here and there, it would become a fairly popular alternative email client.

Likewise, I’m also very interested in seeing the betas of Persona and Unibox. Although I’m personally not a fan of the conversation view in email — I prefer having each message in a list — I can see that it will catch on with some people who use email to chat with people, as opposed to instant messaging applications. As it stands at the moment, Unibox is set to be Mac-only whereas Persona will be available on both iOS devices and OS X, making it a more attractive prospect. We will, of course, have full, in-depth reviews of both products as they launch!

That said, I still believe that it is the tried-and-tested way of working with emails that will reign for the future. Airmail, for example, is adding new features to its beta almost every single week (the good news is that Exchange support is coming) and given its tiny price tag of $1.99 (it’s even in the Mac App Store!) and customisation possibilities, I think it’s up there as one of the best email clients out there on OS X, and it’s certainly the one that is most active at the moment. It’s essentially the same way we’ve always used email — just as Sparrow was — but with extra features. That’s a future that seems likely.

But given the burst of excitement surrounding new OS X mail applications, it’s all gone a bit quiet. Sure, there are three options currently in development (Mail Pilot, Persona and Unibox) but it’s not like we are seeing projects appearing on the horizon daily, or even weekly. Unlike note taking applications on the iPad, say, the market isn’t saturated — and I feel this demonstrates something. How many different ways are there to do email? Sure, developers can get as creative as they want but it’s very hard to bring a change to something that is so well-established and understood by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

That’s not to say I just want e-mail to be confined to the likes of Apple Mail and Microsoft Outlook — though Mail.app, at the least, can still be a pretty nice email app. I like entrepreneurship — new, in-your-face features touting a whole new way to help me sift through my endless list of emails — but there will always be that small part of me hankering after those features that I’m used to in traditional email. And that hankering is unfortunately extremely hard to lose.