Web mail systems have a long way to go

Just about everyone I know has a Hotmail account or a close clone thereof; and nobody I know who uses one likes it much.

Just about everyone I know has a Hotmail account or a close clone thereof; and nobody I know who uses one likes it much.

Web mail systems have gained enormous acceptance in the last few years, but not enormous popularity. The user interface is usually pretty clunky and performance ranges from mediocre to dismal; security is marginal at best; and some of the terms and conditions of use are nothing short of astounding (for instance, were you aware that Microsoft owns and can commercially exploit anything you post via any of their Passport-authenticated services, including Hotmail?).

So why has web mail enjoyed so much acceptance? I believe there are two reasons, of which the first is patently obvious — they’re free. The second is perhaps a little less apparent — web mail represents a rudimentary attempt to provide a complete remote access solution for email.

In a utopian internet you would be able to sit down at any computer, run the email application, type in at most a couple of bits of information, and voila! You would have your entire mailbox, with all the useful paraphernalia you expect in your mail program, laid out the way you prefer. This is such an intuitive expectation in fact, that it seems almost banal to describe it — yet web mail systems provide practically the only means of doing it at present. Few, if any of the full-fledged email systems provide anything like this kind of use-anywhere remote access capability.

There are three major reasons why remote access email has been so slow to materialise:

  1. Performance: Email is bulky stuff — we all tend to keep a lot of it lying around, and it can get pretty large, especially when you start considering attachments. Providing an interface to substantial quantities of data using only a 33.3Kbit/s modem link involves significant compromises.
  2. Lack of standardisation: While methods exist to access remote folders (principally in the form of the POP3 and IMAP4 protocols), there’s more to email than folders. When it comes to address books, mailing lists, filtering rules, calendaring/scheduling, configuration storage and all the other things that your email package does, the standards are either totally lacking or woefully inadequate. In the absence of standards, developers have to face doing something on their own, and in an age where interoperability has become a basic survival attribute, this is a bad thing.
  3. There’s no profit in it: With Hotmail and Outlook, Microsoft is in the process of doing to email what it has already done to word processing and spreadsheets — wiping out the opposition by fair means or foul. Every day there are fewer email developers as smaller businesses, starved of revenues, fall like flies, and the larger developers are necessarily cautious about committing substantial resources to tackle an incredibly difficult problem in an environment where Microsoft is systematically turning email into yet another monopoly.

But in the end, these difficulties notwithstanding, the world of email is going remote — it’s unavoidable as society becomes more mobile and user expectations grow ever higher. The lingering question is simply what form will remote mail finally take?

The simplicity of webmail has enormous appeal, but I’m not sure it can ever rise above the limitations of HTML to become the system you would truly want to use as your primary mailer. Maybe I’m wrong here, but even if I am, we’re still a long way from the realisation of everyday web mail.

I believe web mail is increasingly going to become just one component of a complete remote access solution — something that’s there to cope with situations where only a web browser is available, without being intended as the primary interface.

The customisability and flexibility of standalone email packages is easily their strongest selling point: any program can “do email”, but not necessarily every email program can do email the way you want it to. The challenge for the remaining major dedicated email applications is to find ways of providing true remote access in a manner that minimises or negates the compromises that are necessarily involved. This is a very big ask, but I suspect the first vendor who can produce such a truly complete remote access email system might even stand a faint chance of surviving the Microsoft juggernaut. Time will tell.

Harris is the Dunedin-based developer of internet mail software Pegasus Mail. Send email to David Harris.

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