Software

Outlook uncertain: Why you still need a mail reader on your desktop


I'm wringing my hands over the future of my favorite mail program, Thunderbird, as its developers consider whether it should be spun off on its own. It's only my favorite program because it's proven itself in my work, however. Like most people, I usually access my personal e-mail through a web browser. This doesn't mean I've erased Thunderbird from my home computer's hard drive, though. Here are some powerful reasons for keeping a dedicated e-mail reader in your Programs folder:

Checkboxes stink. Managing messages in web-based mail readers is a pain in the you-know-what. Even with those programs that have good search tools under the hood, if you want to select and manage multiple messages, you'll eventually have to check a jillion tiny little boxes...one for every message you want to modify. Until we see more AJAX-y web sites that support click-and-drag selection and drag-and-drop, mass message manipulation is always something that's easier accomplished in a desktop mail client. Your personal information needs a home. If you use a PDA or a smart phone, and are smart enough to want a safety net in case your pretty toy gets lost, you sync your data to your personal computer. If you use Windows, odds are good that when you sync all that information, the program you use as your conduit is a mail reader: Microsoft's Outlook. This is because lots of desktop mail programs can manage more than just your messages; they can manage a calendar, an address book, or a task list as well. Lots of Web-based mail readers offer tools for managing these types of personal information, but none of them have yet offered a way to get that information onto your organizer in a single step. Handheld manufacturers have been designing their devices to support Outlook for years. Sometimes, there's not a (network) cloud in the sky. Web-based e-mail takes for granted a connection to the Internet. What do you do if you want to compose e-mail when you aren't near a hot spot? As close as we are to ubiquitous connectivity, sometimes I don't have a network available. Even then, I still need to have access to the messages in my inbox. You are your own lifeguard. While we'd like to think we could trust our service providers to manage our data responsibly, this may not always be the case. I know a couple of people who lost messages and contacts from their accounts on a major Web e-mail system during one of the company's server maintenance periods a year ago. The service agreements that so many of us click through without reading often absolve the providers of any responsibility if anything like that happens. It's handy then to have the contents of your Web-based account archived in a desktop client. You're not paranoid if they're really out to get you. Every machine you store your e-mail messages on is another place vulnerable to subpoena or snooping. How many people do you want reading your mail? By downloading your mail into a desktop client, and deleting it from your provider's servers, you leave less of your business available to prying eyes.
13 comments
Thrash Cardiom
Thrash Cardiom

"Like most people, I usually access my personal e-mail through a web browser." Where is the support for this claim? What surveys or studies do you have that provide evidence for it? The vast majority of people I know use a dedicated email client to process email and rarely use webmail at all.

williamjones
williamjones

...that's a documented fact. TechCrunch reports that Yahoo Mail, Live Hotmail, and Gmail have over 500 million users between them http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/02/08/a-comparison-of-live-hotmail-gmail-and-yahoo-mail According to Hitwise, 5 of the 20 most visited websites in July 2007 were web-based mail portals. Yahoo Mail is the destination for surfers almost 5% of the time. http://www.hitwise.com/datacenter/rankings.php I won't dispute that most corporate users access their corporate mail through a desktop client most of the time. But I'd wager that many of those same people access their personal mail over the web while they're at the office. You have observed few people using web mail. I see people using web mail--and I do it myself--on a daily basis. Both of our perspectives are subjective, and you're right that it's impossible to tell exactly how many of the hundreds of millions of account holders use the web as the primary means of accessing their email accounts. Ultimately though, I think that users expect to be able to access their mail seamlessly from a number of platforms--their desktop, their phone, and the web. Each has it's own benefits. I was endeavoring to point out how the use of a desktop client can complement web mail's mobility.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Does anyone use it as their primary source of e-mail? Most people I know that use it view their accounts as temporary ones, useful when buying on the web but to be abandoned when the incoming spam gets too heavy.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

Too much of what I - and the folks I work with - do over the course of a semester needs to be documented and maintained in some form for at least 3 years. Webmail is crap for this (IMO). On a personal level I also hate webmail. I don't want all that stuff sitting around on what is essentially a public server. I rarely use webmail.

LawrenceFine
LawrenceFine

I would say that most corporate users do NOT use web mail but do use an email client, most likely being Outlook. I would also say that many non-corporate users (closer to 50/50) do use web mail. No surveys or studies, just my impression from working with many users.

bullitch
bullitch

I agree sir that web based mail is mostly used especially in poor countries like the Philippines where users doesn't have enough knowledge on computers and rely on easy-to-access web based mail.

Genera-nation
Genera-nation

Universities - saves them configuring thousands of clients!

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

so I visit my web interface now and then to make sure those emails I want are not in the Junk Mail folder. Most folks I know do the same. Configure the web interface heavily, and then visit now and then to let the accidentally caught legit mail through to the onboard client. Or I just keep an eye on email accounts via web when out of town or away from home. With our move to Exchange 03 at school, I don't even use OWA anymore from home. I've got an RPC/HTTPS configuration that gives me a direct in to my work address. Sweet - prior versions of OWA were clumsy and nearly useless for anything but seeing what was there. Webmail as a primary? AAuurgh!

Genera-nation
Genera-nation

in an exchange setup is really just a glorified use of web based e-mail. How? Well the 'mail' never leaves the server & you access it from a 'client' over an IP network. Who cares what the client is?

nentech
nentech

Use an email client or very close to 100%. They will use web mail when away from home. Of all the years I have spent helping home users only one has used web mail. His reason was he did not know about or how to use an email client.

Thrash Cardiom
Thrash Cardiom

I definitely agree with you about corporate users. I know of none who use webmail. I also work with many non-corporate users and know of none who use webmail as their main method of accessing email. Some use it occasionally when away from their main computer but in general they avoid it because of its inherent slowness and clumsiness of the interface (as pointed out in the original article).

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"...the 'mail' never leaves the server..." That depends on how you configure the client. Every laptop we have here is set to keep local copies of the data: messages, contacts, calendar, etc. That way the user can access his information when off line. Any new items they create are then uploaded to the server the next time they connect. Also, if you set up archive folders, you can keep local copies. Most of our desktops are set up this way so the user can move stuff out of his mailbox. This allows them to retain all data without exceeding our mailbox size limit (100Mb). This is also how we store the mail of former employees.

ozi Eagle
ozi Eagle

Hi, The users I have come across using webmail simlpy don't know about mail clients. They ask if there is an easier way to get their mail. I set them up with a client and they are overjoyed at the ease. Herb

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