Email Doesn’t Suck. It’s Email Clients That Need Improving

Postcards may be one of the most obvious examples of Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, “the medium is the message.” Regardless of what you write on one, a postcard tells someone, hey, I was out and about in the world, and I was thinking of you.

I am an inveterate sender of postcards. For all the instantaneousness of today’s communication options, nothing quite conveys a message the way a postcard does. Another aspect I find McLuhanesque is the gap between when you mail the postcard and when the person receives it. The card is independent of both sender and receiver; third parties carry it to its fate.

I also love email, which I’ve always thought of as the digital equivalent of a postcard.

While email doesn’t have the physical limitations of a postcard (though email is similarly “open” in the sense that anyone with snooping skills can read one in transit), there is a shift in time between sending and receiving in both formats. And I would argue that the best emails follow the same format as a postcard: simple, focused messages.

Not everyone loves email, of course, but I am convinced that much of the dislike we have for email comes from the software we use to interact with it. That is, email clients.

The technology behind email is one of the longest-lasting, most-used sets of protocols on the internet. But while email technology, like the postcard, has stood the test of time, email clients have not. They’ve been corrupted, neglected, and relegated to the back of the class. If we’re really going to learn to love email again, what we first need are better email clients.

I’m not talking about web-based email (like Gmail), where you visit a URL and see your cloud-based inbox in the browser window. I’m talking about a stand-alone email client that downloads your mail from a mail server and lets you read and respond from your desktop, either in a dedicated application or in an email reader that’s built into another application, like a web browser. A stand-alone email client gives you the same advantages all native applications have over their web-based counterparts: speed, grace, and offline accessibility. This type of thing used to be common. The Opera web browser had a built-in email client, and Mozilla (makers of Firefox) supported the stand-alone client Thunderbird. But over the past 10 or 15 years came a shift to web-based email, led primarily by Gmail. This move prompted most browsers to drop their email clients, and even destroyed the market for some stand-alone email clients.

But many of us never found web-based email appealing. I tried Gmail briefly and found it a step backward. Slow to load, awkward to use, and insistent on trying to sort and organize my inbox for me by adding labels and shunting things into separate tabs. That’s not what I want, and so I have always relied on email clients to fetch, display, and send my email.

For reference, here’s the historical timeline of my relationship with mail client software: First there was Mutt, then Pine, then Eudora, then Mailsmith, then Opera, then Thunderbird. Now, I use a combination of Mutt and Vivaldi Mail.

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