More and more people rely on a Web-based interface for accessing their e-mail, be it Google’s Gmail, Apple’s MobileMe, or another provider’s webmail service. Although such systems have the virtue of near-universal accessibility—and although they have, in the past couple of years, improved dramatically in usability—I’ll still take a desktop e-mail client (such as Apple Mail, Microsoft Entourage, or Mozilla Thunderbird) any day. Why? Well, there is the issue of outages like the one Gmail experienced this week. I like to be able to access my e-mail whenever I want. But beyond that, webmail still lags far behind desktop clients in several key areas. Here are my top six reasons conventional e-mail programs are still better than even the best webmail.
1. Integration with other applications
Mail ties directly into Mac OS X applications such as Address Book, iCal, iChat, and Keychain. Similarly, most other desktop e-mail clients can also connect to other desktop applications in one way or another. But with webmail, you’re generally stuck with whatever services that provider offers. Gmail happens to offer quite a few, but if you want to use, say, iChat instead of Google Talk to reply to someone who sent you e-mail, it’s not convenient. Plus, click a “mailto” link in a Web browser (or any other application) and you get a new, blank message in your default e-mail client. To achieve the same effect with a webmail system, you may have to install extra software, switch to a different browser, or jump through other hoops.
2. The power to redirect
If you forward a message, and the recipient replies, the reply goes back to you. But if you redirect a message, replies go to the person who originally sent it. The capability to redirect messages is extremely useful when you receive someone else’s mail by mistake, or when another person is better suited than you to reply to certain messages. Mail and Entourage (among other clients) have a Redirect command (Message -> Redirect in both applications). Gmail, MobileMe, and most other webmail systems do not.
3. Drag-and-drop attachments
If you drag a file (such as a JPEG picture or a Word document) into a new message window in a desktop e-mail client, the program attaches that file to your message. This is often the quickest and most convenient way to send someone a file. But try the same trick in a webmail program and you’re more likely to see the path to the file inserted as text in your outgoing message. Attaching files in webmail programs usually involves clicking on a link or button, using an Open dialog box to locate the file, and then repeating the procedure for each attachment. In other words, a common task becomes uncommonly time-consuming.
4. One place for all your accounts
Sure, MobileMe can check another POP account, Gmail can check multiple POP accounts, and you can forward mail from other accounts to either service. But what if you want multiple POP, IMAP, and Exchange accounts all in the same place—and on top of that, you also want the capability to drag messages from one account to another? Desktop e-mail clients are far more likely than webmail to bring everything together in a consistent, elegant way.
5. Better rules
MobileMe’s webmail interface offers no rules for filtering your mail. Gmail does have filters, but they pale in comparison to those offered by the likes of Mail, Entourage, and Thunderbird. If you want complete control over how your incoming mail is sorted and processed automatically, the rules in desktop clients nearly always give you more flexibility than what webmail offers.
6. The full Mac user interface
In a desktop e-mail client, menus, keyboard shortcuts, toolbars, and other aspects of OS X’s user interface work the way you expect them to (and are often customizable). In webmail, you have to take what you get. For example, maybe there are keyboard shortcuts for things like replying and composing new messages, maybe not. If there are shortcuts, they’re probably different from what every other Mac program uses. You’re limited by the capabilities of your browser, which means you may have to switch gears and use a different, less familiar way of working.
Because OS X comes with an excellent e-mail client built in (Mail) and others, such as Thunderbird, are available at no cost, I always recommend using such a program except in cases where a user lacks an individual account on a Mac (to keep his or her data separate from everyone else’s) or is using someone else’s computer temporarily.