Sunday, October 30, 2005

Email in the 21st century

I have a dilemma that is driving me crazy, now that I'm using 2 computers pretty actively. The problem is, how to deal with email: move to the web or stick with the desktop?

Web mail's pros and cons

It seems to me that, other things being equal, storing my mail on a remote (Internet) server is superior to downloading it and storing it on a laptop and deleting the messages from the POP server after they've been downloaded. Internet storage is superior for a couple of reasons:

1. It allows me to access my mail from either my PowerBook OR my Dell laptop and see the same messages. For that matter, I could access my mail from any other computer in the world that has Internet access.

2. Both Gmail and Yahoo! Mail give me 2 GB of storage space. My Point in Space account, on the other hand, gives me a small fraction of this space for mail storage. (I think I get 20 MB.)

3. Of course I couldn't completely rely upon the folks at Gmail or Yahoo!, but as a practical matter, if I use a web mail service, then I probably can worry a little less about losing mail.

I might add that, if I stick with Gmail as my preferred web-mail service, there are some other advantages. Google Desktop is a very nifty utility that, among other things, tells me when new mail comes in, without requiring me to look at my web browser all the time.

There are serious problems with Internet mail, however. The most serious one is that composing messages in a web form is a pain in the butt. I stopped using Bare Bones' Mailsmith over a year ago, but boy, I still miss its editing tools, which are without parallel. Web mail is okay for writing quick, two-sentence replies. But if you want to write several paragraphs - which I do, fairly often - or if you want to edit the text that you are quoting - which I always do - well, the web clients stink. I don't like the width of the editing window, or its height, or the fonts used to display text, or the lack of a rewrap command, etc.

There is the problem in a nutshell. Internet-based email is better from the standpoint of accessibility and storage; but web-clients lack the nice features that a desktop client has.


There are only two ways to compromise here, and neither compromise is entirely satisfactory.

First, it's possible to access my web mail (whether Gmail or Yahoo! Mail) using a POP client on my computer. That allows me to get new mail and write replies using a real mail application. The problem with this approach is that the web mail services aren't good at handling multiple accounts. I get mail that is sent to about half a dozen different addresses. I can have all these messages forwarded from my POP box at Point in Space to my Gmail account. And if I stick with reading my messages in Gmail, I'm actually able to distinguish one from the other pretty well. But when the messages are all being downloaded from Gmail to my computer, it's not so easy for my desktop email client (say, Thunderbird or Apple Mail) to figure out which messages belong to which accounts originally and make sure that I reply from the correct address/account.

The second compromise is to forget about desktop clients, but use a text editor whenever I want to compose a message that's longer than a couple sentences. I have to copy the original message (the part I'm replying to), switch to my editor, paste, write my reply, copy or cut, switch back to the browser and paste. It's less of a hassle than it sounds, but it's still a hassle.

No alternatives

A completely different approach that's occurred to me is to forget about web mail, and simply use two desktop clients - one on the PowerBook, one on the Dell. I could configure Mail on the PowerBook and Thunderbird on the Dell so that both would leave messages on my server for, say, a week or ten days. During that time, I'd make sure I checked the mail with both programs and downloaded it. And Point in Space offers a pretty nice web mail service that I could use occasionally (say, when traveling without my own computer) to check new messages.

But this won't work. For one thing, it FEELS crazy. But on a more practical level, if I compose and mail a reply from Thunderbird, Apple Mail doesn't know about it, and vice versa. So it's actually rather difficult to have a single mail store that has everything in it. In other words, this is actually worse than just deciding to use one computer as my email computer and then dealing with the occasional inconvenience of being away from that computer.

As an aside, I must say that, at the moment, I'm very angry at Apple. Getting my messages out of Apple Mail is proving to be quite a challenge.

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.