E-Mail Software Needs a Rewrite

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 12, 2009

It looks like a great time for e-mail but a lousy time for e-mail applications. If, that is, you even use a separate e-mail program these days.

Web-based mail has been gaining ground for years, especially since Google revived the concept by launching Gmail five years ago.

These days, many home users never bother to download their e-mail, and the only threat Web mail sites face comes from other sites: the closed confines of social networks. The most popular among them, Facebook, just gained its 200 millionth member, far more than any one Web-mail service.

Plenty of other desktop programs have been made deservedly obsolete by Web equivalents: Who gets teary-eyed with nostalgia over encyclopedia CD-ROMs? But in the case of e-mail, it's not so clear that the Web deserves a victory.

In its favor, Web mail offers a simpler setup: You need to know only a user name and a password, without any arcane mail-server addresses ("pop.comcast.net"). Once your account is active, you can use it from any Web-connected computer.

Web-based mail systems also make it easy to keep a permanent address regardless of your Internet provider. Doing the same with desktop e-mail usually requires paying extra for a domain name and fiddling with mail settings.

By contrast, desktop mail programs let you read and compose mail without an Internet connection (though Gmail is testing an offline mode) and don't wrap advertisements around your mail.

But their most important advantage is their separation of software and service. Because you can use more than one program with one mail service, you can choose an application with the features and interface you like. And because you can also use one mail program with more than one mail service, desktop applications make your mail itself portable; you can back up your messages and take them with you after closing an account.

If desktop mail software programmers had kept pace with Web mail developers, the two camps could have a fairly even fight.

But the most widely used program, Microsoft's Windows-only Outlook, last had a major upgrade to its e-mail capabilities in 2003. Built for large businesses, it's overkill for home use -- which may explain why you don't get the current Outlook 2007 if you buy the semi-cheap "Home and Student" version of Microsoft Office.

Microsoft's second-most-widely used program, Outlook Express, is a fossil of an application, with few changes since 1999. Its successor, Windows Mail, did not arrive until Windows Vista's debut in January 2007. Vista's replacement, Windows 7, won't include it or any other mail program, although Microsoft will still offer its Windows Live Mail program as a free download.

Usually, when the dominant vendor sits on its duff, enterprising developers spring into action. But the most promising Microsoft rival, the free, open-source Mozilla Thunderbird (http://getthunderbird.com), has grown stale.


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