It’s been over 2 decades that I have been using e-mails. I have moved from service providers like 37.com, netaddress.com, usa.net, to more respectable ones like Hotmail, Yahoo, and Gmail. Truth be told, once I landed on Gmail, back in 2004, I never wanted to move out of it. Note, I mentioned Gmail as a “service”, and not the client. I’ll elaborate in a bit.
The world of e-mail clients is mostly divided between 2 broad types:
- Web-based (primary examples are Gmail, Google Inbox, Zoho, etc)
- Native clients (MS Outlook, Airmail, Newton, etc)
For the longest time, I have sworn by the web-based interface of Gmail. But as time passed, the native e-mail clients have gotten much better, while Gmail kept struggling in terms of features and UI. Google Inbox was an interesting direction they had taken, but today it seems like the project has been abandoned, just like many other experiments Google has worked on in the past.
It’s been about half a decade now that I have switched to native clients completely. I had started off with Thunderbird, then moved on to other apps like MS Outlook, Sparrow, Mail Pilot (closest competitor to Newton, in my opinion), Airmail, Spark & PolyMail (and a plethora more that I’ve tried for a week or two). For over a year now, I’m happy sticking with Newton. However, I’m yet to land an app that I am 100% happy with (sorry Umesh Gopinath). Maybe it’s utopia. Nevertheless, I was trying to bookmark an email today by sending it to my todo app of choice, and I realised I couldn’t do that. And that prompted me to write about exactly what are the features I would care about in this utopian e-mail app of mine. Let’s dive in, shall we?
This one is actually almost a deal breaker. I’ve seen people using multiple email clients on multiple platforms, just because they like one feature in one app over the other, or sometimes a client that has a mobile app doesn’t have a desktop app. Well, that drives me up the wall. E-mail is where I spend at least an hours of my time every day, and it would be crazy if my experience keeps changing from one screen to the other. This is the most important parameter that I’d like my e-mail client to fulfill.
Some of the platforms that I, personally, care about are iOS, macOS, watchOS and ChromeOS. However, voice assistants are increasingly becoming ubiquitous these days, and it’d be great if I could ask the HomePod or the Echo to read out my emails, take actions on them, and also send short replies.
Customisable Notification Actions
This is the second most important feature that impacts my decision for e-mail clients.
Most people, like me, end up deleting, archiving, or moving an email more than replying to it. Especially if you follow the principle of ‘Inbox Zero’, you’ll end up taking those actions more than 50 times a day. And I find it super convenient if I can take those actions on the incoming e-mails right from the notification, without having to go into the e-mail app, be it on the phone, iPad, Watch, or the desktop. These little actions help me curb a lot of e-mail stress in the long run.
One additional point about this is the fact that these actions also need to be user customisable. Without that, I am just left at the mercy of the developer’s idea of what should be there, and what shouldn’t. For example, the Gmail mobile app has notification actions of just ‘reply’ and ‘archive’. Heck, I delete more emails than I archive. And I almost never reply to an email without going into the email itself first. You get the drift, don’t you?
Snooze, or Defer
If you don’t snooze your e-mails in any form, you’re surely missing out great trick to avoid e-mail stress. Now, there are many ways to achieve that. Here are some:
- Use the snooze feature available in the e-mail client itself. This is the best option, but it necessitates my top most requirement of having a cross-platform email client. Else, emails snoozed by one client can’t be resurfaced by another one, and just completely defeats the purpose.
- Using existing todo list apps to remember about taking action about emails, and simply archiving the email itself until it needs to be resurfaced. Frankly, this is my most preferred workflow. One of the major reasons being, I use the todo list app called Todoist to manage almost everything in my life. And if I have some stuff to take care of, I’d rather have everything collated within one single dashboard, instead of having them floating in multiple places. That way, it helps me manage my time better. My current e-mail client does have some integration with Todoist, but not to the level that I’d like it to. One thing to note, Apple’s official e-mail client does, primarily because it allows clicking-and-dragging of e-mails. So, all one needs to do is grab the e-mail from the app and drop it to Todoist’s interface.
- There is a nifty service called SaneBox that can handle snoozing e-mails, and the best part is it frees you from using any e-mail client you choose, any time. However, personally, I find the solution very inelegant, even though there are a lot of people who swear by the service.
I have spoken a lot about snoozing, or deferring e-mails. But I must also mention the importance of follow-up reminders. How follow-up reminders work is when you send an e-mail to someone, you can choose to be reminded of it at a later time, if the receipient doesn’t reply to the e-mail until then. A feature that comes to my rescue when I send invoices to clients ????
Mute an E-mail Thread Temporarily
Only those who often get cc-ed in long e-mail lists, or are part of multiple e-mail groups can appreciate this feature. We all know that iOS notifications suck, especially since iOS 7. The fact that it shows one bubble for every single notification means that, often enough, my notification pane is filled with useless updates of e-mails where I am just cc-ed for the heck of it. And the fact that I get e-mail notifications on my Watch as well, I think it’s easy to imagine how irritating such notifications can be. That’s when this feature becomes a life saver, because you can easily mute that particular thread and stop getting disturbed incessantly. Now, even though Newton Mail doesn’t support that feature, there are a few in the market that do — Google Inbox, Gmail, MS Outlook, etc.
This is more of a good-to-have feature for me, than something very essential. And yet, it’s often been useful in the context of work.
To understand how read receiptsusually works, check out this small article on Wikipedia.
However, such kind of pixel tracking doesn’t work when an email is sent to multiple e-mail accounts, and when you’d like to track every single user’s activity, the way it’s shown on the left. To understand how Newton Mail handles that, check out their pretty informative blog post.
Even though I don’t use this feature to prove someone wrong if they say they didn’t check the e-mail, I mostly use this feature to figure out if I should send a follow-up e-mail, or should I wait if the recipient hasn’t read the e-mail yet, and might be occupied.
Efficient & Timely Sync
Can not stress on this enough. Actions like read status, archiving, labelling, etc must sync with the server silently, but efficiently. Any misbehaviour on this count will result into my installing the app pretty quickly.
UI & UX
Features aren’t everything. Many a times, I have chosen to work on a lesser specced product just because it’s been designed much better than the other. This is one of the major reasons why I choose to use Todoist, over OmniFocus, even though the GTD enthusiasts go gaga over the latter.
E-mail Clients that can double up as a ToDo List
As I mentioned above, my first preference is always apps that can tie up with my ToDo app of choice. If not, then the second best option is to use a client that can double up as a todo list. A prime example of such an app is Moo.do. Even though not many people subscribe to this idea, it kinda works for me.
Drag-and-Drop to other apps
This is not a feature many e-mail apps have, but at least Apple Mail does. The biggest use case of this feature is to be able to drag an e-mail to a ToDo list app. Forget on the desktop, given that drag and drop is now possible on the iPads as well, this is a really nifty feature to use on it. I miss it a lot in the case of Newton, especially now that I have stopped carrying my MacBook when I am out and about, and mostly rely on the iPad for work.
Support for x-callback-url Specification
Now, this is a little more technical than usual, but it shouldn’t be a completely new term for the iOS pros.
The goal of the x-callback-url specification is to provide a standardized means for iOS developers to expose and document the methods they make available to other apps. Using x-callback-url’s source apps can launch other apps passing data and context information, and also provide parameters instructing the target app to return data and control back to the source app after executing an action.
Imagine you could have shortcuts in your widget that could let you compose a pre-typed e-mail and send it directly to a friend/colleague, without having to open the e-mail app even once? For example, I could create 2 canned messages — one for when I’m working from home, and another when I’m gonna be out for the day attending meetings — and I could just send that info to all my colleagues with just a tap of a button!
Apps like Workflow & Launch Center Pro have made life on iOS a lot easier by making use of the x-callback-url schemas of other 3rd party apps. To know more about it, check out this informative article by MacStories.
I guess my search for that utopian e-mail app still continues. If I find that one app some day, I’ll surely write about it. Until then, Newton comes to the rescue.
How about you? Which is your e-mail client of choice, and why? Are there any features, other than those I’ve listed, that you’d love to see in an e-mail client?