Back & Forth

Prompted by switching a personal computer to a Mac recently I’ve been looking at more software than I usually would. One particular area I’ve been looking at is that of e-mail clients.

For work purposes Outlook rules. Together with Exchange it provides an experience of using email with associated functions of calendaring and contact management that is difficult to beat. However, this isn’t what I want for home usage.

My choice of e-mail client for personal use is Thunderbird, paired with an appropriate CalDAV based system for a calendar. Of course, the data there is also going to my phone, which brings us closer to the point, which is apps.

Many years ago computing was performed largely on big machines accessed through terminals, but of course you knew this. We then moved slowly towards having clever terminals, running applications locally and then slowly back towards having centralised systems. In my short time in the IT industry I think I’ve seen this trend occur fully twice. The reasons, aside from fashion and wanting to sell something new is typically been swings between the merits of computing power and bandwidth. If bandwidth is low and computing power is high then distribute everything out.

The past few years have seen a trend – move services online, share data, make it social, make it cloudy. This has led to a reduction in the use of desktop applications; just put everything in the browser – e-mail, documents, even games. The browser becomes nothing more than a terminal, enabled with scripting to have a little more intelligence.

The reason this is so interesting right now is because of a counter-trend – mobile devices, the apps they provide and, in some cases, the security challenges they give us. Small screen sizes and connectivity mean that, in some cases data, and therefore apps provide a better user experience. Add to that the need to input passwords regularly (Google especially seems to love invalidating cookies just as I’m doing something useful) and you can see why an app is better on these platforms.

The world is changing again – last year Apple released the Mac App Store. The idea being that software delivery on the “real” computers would become more like that of a mobile device. The new version of OSX moves many UI “innovations” from iOS also. Windows 8 will blur the boundaries further. Essentially things should be the same whether you’re using a phone, a tablet or a laptop. Suddenly where popular wisdom was to put it in the browser we’re back with apps – even with something as quintessentially webby as Twitter, I’m using an app.

This needless waffling brings us back to the point. Email. I use IMAP. For most purposes this is much better than POP (storage and processing is cheap, get over it). Anyone using a phone for email will typically use an app; even on an Android device, produced by Google, mail is an app. However, for some reason this doesn’t seem to translate to the desktop. A quick search for “twitter” in the Mac App Store results in dozens of free apps to access that particular service, but the number of fat client applications for e-mail is low and dropping.

In the past few weeks we’ve seen announcements by Mozilla that Thunderbird development will be scaled back and Sparrow has been bought by Google. Aside from the applications shipped in the OS there are very few actively developed options available for what is still one of the key Internet uses.

And that’s the thing – with social media, instant and online messaging, plain old e-mail isn’t sexy. BUT so many other things rely on it – information from banks and retailers is one thing, but you can’t even get other accounts online without your email address and what happens if you need your password changing…

Plus, it’s still a very effective way of communicating with people.

Long term, usage of any application or protocol will change (we’re seeing it with Twitter already), but I genuinely struggle to believe that we have an entire generation of computer users who now think that e-mailing is an in-browser activity (for goodness sake, half the time I press the backspace key I lose everything I’ve done), so there must be something else at play. Are clients too difficult to use, too difficult to configure or just too clunky?