Alex Payne has a great criticism of both Web and desktop email application in his post The Problem With Email Clients which accurately captures some of the frustrations I've had with both classes of email clients. The entire post is a must read if you've ever thought about how email can be improved. Some key passages from his post are 

Anyone who’s given Gmail a fair shake will quickly find conversations indispensable. Going back to any other email client is agonizing and disorienting, like being knocked around and dumped out of the back of a pickup on the outskirts of a strange town. In desktop email clients, new messages arrive completely bereft of context. The only way to orient yourself is to either remember what the conversation was about or read through the mess of quoted text that may or may not be present at the bottom of the message, depending on what kind of email client or prefences the sender has. You could try searching to re-orient yourself, but good luck with that in Outlook or

With conversations, Google has offered the only advancement in the information architecture of email clients in decades. Apple, on the other hand, has given us basically bupkiss, rendering Neven’s defense a bit silly.

This is probably heresy coming from a web application developer, but I think web applications are mostly ghastly. I hate using them. When I’m faced with a computing problem, I want to solve it with a polished, stable, native application for my operating system that looks and feels like it belongs on my computer. I don’t believe in Rich Internet Applications — they’re a boogeyman that I keep hoping will disappear.

The problem with Gmail is that it could be a “real” application. While its conversations and search-that-actually-works are (sadly) innovative, they’re not impossible to implement as part of a platform-native email client. I enjoy using Gmail, but I’d enjoy it even more if it obeyed the rules of my operating system, not the rules of the web. The web has a lot to offer certain types of problems, but I’m not convinced that email is one of them.

The problem with desktop email clients is that they’re not webmail. The problem with webmail is that it’s not a desktop email client.

I think Alex is on to something here. I prefer to read read my Hotmail account in Outlook via the Microsoft Outlook Connector because I'd rather read my email in a desktop app than in a Web app trying to look like a desktop app. On the other hand, I read my RSS feeds in RSS Bandit even though Outlook is an extremely popular RSS reader because I'm dissatisfied with how Outlook presents messages and feel an app I wrote myself does it more effectively.

Clearly there is room for a revolution here.

Note Now Playing: R.E.M. - Everybody Hurts Note


Monday, February 9, 2009 4:26:38 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
The main puzzle to me is how it could have happened that today web email gives me a MUCH snappier user experience than the popular email clients, whereas the selling point for proper apps is always that they have the better UE. There is one number one feature for me that I just cannot miss: Access to all my old email, i.e. a complete email archive. And that simply isn't usable from Outlook because it cannot handle large inboxes without completly unacceptable performance. Accessing the same full email archive on the web either in gmail or in hotmail does work and is fast.

I find that a fascinating development, because here you have a case where supposedly native apps should have an edge over web apps, i.e. it should be faster, snappier, but in fact it isn't, not by a mile. I understand that probably Outlook didn't invest in that area for a long while because there were some of these blackhole projects like WinFS that they might have bet on, but I really, really hope that they catch up in Outlook 14 in that area to actually at some point provide a superior UE than the web.

And don't even get me started on Outlook Connector, that is the most buggy piece of software I have ever used. I routinely tried out every new release they had, but it doesn't sync everything, it looses data and the team is the most unresponsive one I have ever met (they normally post once every six months a post on the outlook blog "hurray, we have shipped a new version", then the comments fill up in no time with ONLY people telling them about very specific bugs that are show stoppers, and then you never hear anyhting from them again until they ship the next buggy version).
Tuesday, February 10, 2009 6:48:57 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
This is not related to your comment, but rather your quoted text: how are conversations really Google's "advancement in the information architecture of email clients"? It is called threading, and mail clients have been doing it for a very long time. Sure, GMail has its own flavor of it (linear versus hierarchical and folding quoted context), but the basic idea -- the part that fixes the "new messages arrive completely bereft of context" complaint -- has been around for a long time.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009 11:00:35 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I'd agree with davidacoder above - it frustrates me that while gmail's interface is so much poorer than Outlook, Outlook is so much <i>slower</i>. I don't know if it's a limitation of the IMAP protocol or just Outlook's implementation of it, but working with IMAP is a terrible pain. It blocks threads and makes the whole app sluggish, and Outlook is sluggish enough in the first place.
I hope Outlook 14 revamps IMAP support, but I'm not holding my breath. They got the Hotmail connector for their own property, and not much incentive to support the enemy's webmail service. The only reason I haven't switched is that other desktop mail clients are even crappier. :(
Thursday, February 12, 2009 6:30:13 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Gmail is very convinient to use. I dont use outlook anymore.
Thursday, February 12, 2009 11:07:22 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
outlook + xobni is excellent solution.
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