Why Google Mail is Better than Mail.app

Mail.app is a desktop mail application for NeXT/Macos with a long development history. It does POP, IMAP, and so on. Has a rich UI. But it blows and Google mail does not. I’ve been using Mail.app day in and day out for the last 3 or 4 years, as my current job involves working with Macs a lot. I’ve come to a sort of grudging peace with the application, not pushing beyond the functionality that I know works fairly well. Not trying to make it do things I know that it just won’t do.

I use it to read IMAP mail at work and at my personal ISP mail account. I have five or ten thousand messages stored in it. It generally works pretty well, it is fairly flexible, doesn’t crash a lot.

But it sucks anyway. It really doesn’t do mail the way I want. It makes you set up byzantine filters and rules to organize mail automatically. It forces you into a hierachical network database sort of mindset that should have died in the 1970s after SQL took over. And, the UI is a bit odd. Things you do a lot are not quickly found. You do a lot of clicking. The main window doesn’t show you enough. The mailbox drawer is stupid. And so on.

All this from an app that has a development history that reaches back at least 10 years.

Compare and contrast with the recent Google Mail beta. You have to figure Google has been working on this for maybe a year or two. Yet the UI is much more streamlined. Common operations have quick single letter key commands. Nice touches abound. Example: when you read a message, there is a blank text box at the end under the reply links. You click in the box and it bounces open with the reply template right in place. No new windows, no muss, no fuss. You can also hit the reply/reply all links, or hit “r”. Having multiple ways to do things, all of which are fast, is nice.

The top level UI shows you a lot of information at once. The threading even kind of works without being stupid. Overall, it just feels more polished. And then you realize that you are using it in a web browser. This is an amazing accomplishment. You almost don’t realize you are using a web page. And, as a bonus, this web interface will work from almost anywhere. No need to lug the laptop along just to read mail.

One of the many minor things Gmail does better that Mail is address completion. You start typing your address, and you get a little javascript menu that updates in real time. The menu is organized by which names you used most often.

Mail has something like this too, but it has a tendency to pick a name at random for you before you realize what has happened. Gmail has a bit of a delay so you don’t accidentally send mail to the wrong Steve.

One of the major things Google does better than Mail is search. Considering that Mail has the complete strength of local Macos behind it and gets to store all of your mail on the local hard drive, you’d think that it could build a good text search index. But it can’t. Hits displayed in a completely random order. It doesn’t find messages that should be hits. It finds tons of messages that are not hits.

Google is, of course, as good as google. You type in words, it shows you the hits you wanted. Basically, it crushes Mail.app even though it is indexing the mail of thousands of other users in addition to mine.

Filters are much better in Google mail because they are not based on the idea of moving mail to folders. You tag mail with labels and then your “folders” are just google queries against the labels. This is far superior. Not only do you not waste time filing mail away into useless hierarchies, you can do things like label messages with multiple labels and compose complex queries that are more useful than any given folder might be. It’s like relational vs. non-relational databases. It’s just clear what the right answer is.

The one thing Google needs to fix is the spam filtering. It sucks. Nuff said.

Summary: I wish I could use google mail for everything I do with e-mail. Sadly, I’d get fired if I put my work mail there. Oh well.