3 ways Apple could improve email
There's no better time to make the Mail apps more secure, proactive, and integrated with the other ways we communicate.
Despite all the many forms of communicating with people online—iMessage, Twitter, Facebook, Slack—email still reigns supreme for me. I conduct business via email, keep in touch with my family, send links to friends, and coordinate events. And yet, Apple’s approach to email has remained largely static for years.
That’s not to say that the company hasn’t tried to integrate new features into the email experience. Hardly a release of iOS or OS X comes without some improvements to the Mail app. While some are more successful than others, overall our email has hardly been—I hesitate to even whisper the word—disrupted.
Despite the surfeit of ways for us to communicate, I don’t think email is going away anytime soon. And while dealing with it may not be the most pleasant of tasks, a few changes might bring it up to date with the rest of our modern online experience.
Obviously, Apple’s already mired in a whole foofaraw over security and encryption, but email remains one of the least secure forms of communication around. Even if we have encrypted connections to our mail accounts, our messages themselves are still transmitted in plain text, traveling the information superhighway in a car with no airbags.
And yet, many people continue to request (and send) sensitive personal information like social security numbers, business documents, and more on a daily basis. Sure, you can securely encrypt that information with a little know-how, by using an encrypted disk image or installing an encryption plugin like GPGMail, but those are hardly easy for non-tech savvy users. (Sometimes not even for savvy users: I’ve tried to set up GPGMail a few times, and eventually gave up.)
Building a transparent encryption system into Mail, preferably using open standards, could go a long way to securing much of our communication. Even better if Apple could work together with some of the other major email providers, like Google and Yahoo, so that all of the systems interoperate. As a template, I’d look at Apple’s Mail Drop system, which takes attachments too large to email and instead uploads them to iCloud and provides a link for your recipient. You don’t notice it doing its thing; in the tradition of the best Apple technology, it just works.
I’m not an organizer: look at my Inbox and you might shudder at the sight of the 71,000-plus emails. Simply put, I don’t want to spend my time filing things: if I need a particular message, I’ll search for it. (That comes with its downsides, though. For one thing, though Mail generally performs surprisingly well, it can sometimes get a bit sluggish.)
Perhaps our mail clients could take on a little more of this organization automatically. After all, it’s a machine and should be able to handle some of the menial labor of sorting through email I’m likely to want to read and those that are less urgent. Google’s been doing this for a while, filtering out promotional emails, purchase orders, travel information, social networking notifications, and so on, and organizing them into separate categories that are easy to browse. That kind of granularity is useful, since it doesn’t bug you with information you don’t need urgently, but can still notify you when there’s an email you do need to see.
The closest Apple gets is its VIP feature, which I’ve long used to manage my notifications for incoming email. I’d like even more granularity there, too, though, like the ability to have distinctions for messages from family, friends, or work contacts. Right now it’s a matter of whether a contact is important or not, when the truth is that there are varying degrees of importance. I might always want to see an email from my mom or dad immediately, whereas that funny dog video from my friend could probably wait an hour or two.
Some of this could potentially be done with rules (only available in the OS X version of Mail), but why make users reinvent the wheel? Computers excel at heavy lifting like this, and it frees up a lot of room for our brains to do the things they’re good at.
Once upon a time, Apple tried to integrate its iChat instant messaging app (now Messages) with Mail. The results were…underwhelming, but perhaps that was because it was a move that was more about where the puck already was than where it was going.
So perhaps Apple could build on the powerful data detector technology that it’s already built into Mail—you know, the one that finds addresses and meeting times and lets you act upon that information—to look for other types of known information: people’s names, for example. iOS 9 is smart enough to look through your email and alert you if the unknown number calling you might be somebody you’ve conversed with in email—what if Mail could look for names and let you pull up more information about someone, even just a Google search or their Twitter profile, right from an email message?
Integration with other services, even all those other means of communication we all use, could turn email into a more relevant part of our digital lives. Because though I don’t think that email’s going away anytime soon, it certainly could stand to be brought—kicking and screaming, even—into the 21st century.