Apple Missed an Opportunity to Make Mail.app’s UI Slightly Less Unusable

2015-10-23 17:14

eudora

I was happy to see a usability improve­ment show up in Mail.app’s version 9.1 in the recent El Capitan update (10.11.1). But Apple missed the refinement to this improvement that would make life easier for power users of email.

In 9.1, when you hover the mouse over top-level items in your local hierarchy of email storage, a circled plus appears so you can instantly create a new sub-folder inside On My Mac or the local storage folders for each active email account. The process of adding to these top-level hierarchies has now been streamlined from the awkward, mouse-intensive, multi-step nuisance it had been before.

Let’s compare Mail.app’s UI to that of a historical, legendary email client.

In earlier decades Eudora commanded a fanatical following among power users; I was one of its fans. It was the first client-side email program many people used. It had a user base of 20 million at its peak.

Eudora was created in 1988 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champlaign by Steve Dorner. (A few years later at that same institution, Mark Andreessen birthed the Mosaic broser.) Dorner continued to lead Eudora’s development and maintainance for its entire life arc, into the 2000s. Here is an interview with Dorner from last summer. In 1991 Qualcomm bought the name, the technology, and its sole developer from UIUC. Dorner continued improving Eudora, telecommuting from Illinois while being paid by Qualcomm, until its withdrawal as a commercial product in 2005. I continued using old versions until 2011, when advances in OS X finally broke it irretrievably.

Eudora’s keyboard-centric interface and endless customizability were strong points, but for my money its real power rested on four features:

  • Storage of emails in human-readable text files
  • The ability to scribble on any email message, including ones in the Sent folder
  • A killer search facility that was fast and offered multiple search criteria and flexible selection of which part of the email storage hierarchy to search
  • The ability to grow one’s hierarchy ad-hoc with a few simple keystrokes

It is the latter feature that Apple missed in its latest Mail.app update.

In Mail.app, filing an email from the Inbox to some point deep in your storage hierarchy is and has always been a mouse-intensive, hit-or-miss nightmare of trying to get the Message List to auto-scroll without collapsing. In Eudora it was a few keystrokes; and if you needed to create a new folder deep in the hierarchy to hold the new message, simply add the keystrokes to type its name. Done in a second.

Now, Mail.app’s visual UI will never be that simple, intuitive, and quick. But it could have been improved by extending the new on mouseover feature into the act of moving an email message into the storage hierarchy. As it is, when you move a message no appears.

(Note that on my most recent visit to an Apple store, a young Genius glanced at the left-hand pane of my Mail.app window. She informed my gravely that a storage hierarchy of thousands of folders and tens of thousands of messages is “far outside the design parameters of the application.” In this era we power users are on our own.)

  

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