Ever since Sparrow Mail went the way of the dodo,1 the search for a good email client has been on. Sparrow continues to work, but it never fully matured as an email client and will never again be supported. Sparrow therefore is not a good long-term option. I still use Sparrow on my laptop and on my iPhone, but I’ve moved back to Apple’s Mail.app on my desktop system. Mail.app’s interface has improved substantially in the time I was using Sparrow, but it has also introduced annoying new bugs (select more than a half-dozen emails and right-click to delete or mark those messages as read? prepare to spend five minutes watching the spinning beachball of death) and is missing a feature that made Sparrow compelling: Sparrow allows hiding the message display pane entirely. This is very handy when deleting spam—I don’t want to have to look at a Viagra or porn ad in order to delete it, thank you very much. If I wanted to look at it, I probably wouldn’t be deleting it.
Sparrow was so well-designed that email clients on all platforms are being compared to Sparrow. Jeff Atwood’s recent glowing review of the Microsoft Surface tablet’s only complaint was with the mail client—he wrote, «If Microsoft doesn’t get their A Team “hey dummies, all you have to do is just copy Sparrow already” team on that soon, they’ll be sorry.» Elsewhere around the Web there are references to «Sparrow-like features» and design «borrowed from Sparrow.» Android blogs are already complaining that the new iOS Gmail app isn’t yet available for Android. What does Gmail’s iOS app have to do with Sparrow? Matthew Izatt, the Gmail app product manager, begins the announcement for the new app by saying, «Six months ago, our team set out to completely rebuild the Gmail app for iPhone and iPad». Six months back from the announcement would have been June. In July, Sparrow announced it had been acquired by Google and that the team would be absorbed into the Gmail team. It’s hard to look at the advancements in Gmail’s IOS user interface and not see Sparrow’s influence.
So this is good news, right? Because Sparrow (sort of) lives on, and great email experience can be had by all. Well, not quite. First, there is no desktop version. Second, as predicted, the new Gmail app that looks just like Sparrow is only for Gmail. It cannot be used to access accounts from other providers.
True, you can tell Gmail to download all of your mail from another provider and thereby use the Gmail app to access your mail, and even send mail from a non-Gmail address. That means giving Google the password to your non-Gmail email account and letting every word of every email get passed through Google’s servers where it can be analyzed to figure out what kinds of ads you’ll respond best to.
Even I don’t really care about the practical issue so much as the centralization and dependency Google is trying to create. And that doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that running your mail from one server to another server so that you can use a mail client that only works with that server is stupid. No one would ever use Microsoft Outlook if the only thing it would do is get mail from Hotmail.2
This brings me to my real complaint. In searching for a replacement for Sparrow, I’ve come across several email clients that look like they have good user interfaces and/or good ideas about handling or processing email. Almost none of them are standalone email apps. They are web-based services that access your email accounts so that the desktop application can access the web-based services. And you get to pay a monthly fee for the privilege.
I’m sorry, but I cannot for the life of me think of a single reason I’d want to access my email «in the cloud.» My email is on an IMAP server; it’s essentially already in the cloud. What possible advantage can I gain from letting some third-party company have my email passwords so that they can hand me my own emails? I don’t care how good your fancy user interface is; if I want to throw my privacy into the wastebin, I’m at least going to do it with an enormous company like Google.
So, here are the absolute minimum requirements for an email client:
- Must work with any provider’s POP or IMAP server. (OK heck, just IMAP. Who uses POP in the 21st Century anyhow?)
- Must have a native client for the operating system on which it runs
- Must not require any subscription to any service other than an Internet connection and a mailserver.
And here is a list of email applications that have simply failed to deliver on this set of requirements:
- MailPilot (It’s a cloud service.)
- Smak (It’s a cloud service.)
- NextBox (In fairness, I can’t see any evidence that NextBox even exists. They want us to «share» how much we love their application but other than a single screenshot there is nothing to love. Perhaps someday there will be an application that meets the above requirements.)
- TaskBox (which looks promising, but only works with Gmail.)
- Inky (It’s a cloud service.)
- MailPlane (Gmail-only and as far as I can tell is the Gmail website in an application wrapper.)
Finally, I ought to mention that there are several Mac email applications out there that do meet the above criteria. Despite having some very vocal proponents who claim each is the second coming of email, I haven’t found any of these to be an improvement over Apple’s Mail.app for my purposes. However, I’m glad to link to these because they are worth trying.
- Postbox (Dropbox support to replace file attachments is a nice feature.)
- MailMate (A great app for the sort of person that would rather write their own mail application.)
- Thunderbird (Meh. I didn’t care for Netscape Mail twelve years ago and Thunderbird hasn’t changed much since.)
- Outlook (I’ve never liked Outlook on the PC so I’m not inclined to pay $200 to see whether I hate it on the Mac too.)
So for the moment I’m still going back and forth between Sparrow and Mail.app. But I’ll end my post on this interesting note: a soon-to-be-released mail app for Windows called Mailbird looks a lot like Sparrow. If Google’s plan in buying Sparrow was to make Apple products look less attractive, it’s working. I’m not to the point where I’d switch to Windows for a mail app, but I’ll seriously consider whether to run Mailbird in virtualization.