October 21, 2004 02:59 | Bits / Features / Technology

email UI

email has been much on my mind again lately. The fact that no email reader (client, MUA, etc) does things the way I'd like is frustrating, and many powerusers I have spoken to agree...

This evening I hooked up with Karl again, and over some green tea and a sticky thai rice desert with mango, we discussed, amongst other things, email UI. For the nth time. Semantic Web ideas were fresh in our minds as Karl had given a presentation on it and RDF earlier this morning.

Now in researching for this post I remembered and retrieved two email projects which actually DO much of what I want. However one was merely an IBM research project (they do SO MUCH awesome stuff at Big Blue!) and the other is, well, temperamental. I will mention them again later after I have described what I have in mind.

So, imagine this:
You don't manage your email anymore into folders/hierarchies. Your email client just stores everything into a dated space - like weblog archives, "/2004/10/21/21.14.49.mbox" - just to keep things nice and structured, in small parcels so as not to choke the OS and the Indexing mechanisms, and to have unique IDs for and URIs to every email.


The email client gives you a few configurable view options:

  1. Smartlists (Entourage has always had this, and it is coming in Apple Mail.app 2.0)
    Smartlists would filter based on rules you derive from data already part of every email your client archives. Date sent, Date recieved, status, presence or absence of attachment, junk-mail headers, etc...
    "show me all unanswered email from the last 3 days"
    "show me all emails with attachments" (this becomes a pseudo filesystem - Cory would love this)
    SmartLists are basically saved searches for known/established meta-data and character strings.

  2. AddressBook/LDAP integration/contact-based aggregation + analysis
    i.e. a list of all contacts, whom you have email to/from, sorted by most recent/frequency/volume + Bayesian(/Bloom?) filtering/learning/weighing (don't show me this contact, drop priority on this sender)

  3. Unlimited and customizable TAGS (à la del.icio.us/flickr... the current sweethearts)
    You assign tags to emails by maintianing a list of them and dropping emails onto the tags you want to associate them to or using the existing filtering tools - instead of sending it to a "folder" assign it a tag or two or three. (Filters could also influence weight...)
    Filter: incoming From: karl -> montreal, quebec, canada, french, friend, +10
    Filter: incoming From: joi -> tokyo, japan, english, friend, client, +10
    Filter: incoming From: mom -> family, guilt, -5

    The killer feature of this is you can have emails in multiple "categories", whereas previously with folders, you had to come up with a taxonomy - which needed revision every few weeks as your situation/sotial network/needs evolved - and place your email within it. Each email could only be in one folder...

  4. Thread arcs and thread highlighting
    I think most recent email clients do the thread highlighting, but only one I know of (GNUmail.app!) implements "thread arcs". With all the above display possibilities, the odds that all or even some emails which are part of a thread are displayed in the same list are slim, making thread highlighting marginally useful, if not outright useless.
    A thread arc (IBM Technical Research Paper PDF), on the other hand, appears in the individual email's display, and shows you that a) this email is part of a detected thread, b) where it is positioned in that thread AND c) allows you to click through the thread history.

Sounds good, no? I think so.

Ok, so I mentioned a few existing developments which have some or much of these features, as well as some of the plumbing.

IBM "Remail"
Remail does much of what I described above and more (calendars, IM...). Instead of tags, it does "collections". Similar concept. As far as I can tell, it is purely an internal research tool. Someone should learn from what IBM has learnt and DO IT.

Zoe is interesting for a number of reasons, but equally uninteresting... The good and the bad are as follows:
a) flat hierarchy
b) indexed / fully searchable (Lucene)
c) Contact sourcing
d) Plays nice with various outside stuff, Mail.app, Entourage, FTP, Blogger, RSS, etc...
a) Web-based app (u'd think this was good but eh...)
b) in neverending and sporadic development
c) a PITA to install and use properly
d) the developer is a bit of a character I've heard...

Funny thing is that zoe was trumpeted all over as "Google your email" over a year ago. Then Google unleashed GMail. And GMail does tagging...

Other worthy mentions:
Ludovic hasn't updated the main news page recently but the changelog for the "nightly builds" for the most recent one shows he's still working on his very nice MUA which runs on Linux, OpenBSD, FreeBSD and Mac OS X.
Awesome research project for visualizing "email landscape" and "email social network". Not only stunning but useful for the above mentioned Contact listing/visualizing.

p.s.: Yes I've mentioned much of this in the past. Goes to show how important email is to me. ;)


I have much the same problem Boris. Finding an email client that works the way you want it to is hard. After trying once more with the latest Entourage I soon gave up and will never go down that street again...

I've settled on Mailsmith from Bare Bones. It's a very 'old-school' app but it suits my coder's mindset. For instance, the ability to grep instead of a more ususal search is awesome. There's no fuss with it either, it doesn't do IMAP very well, but it will download mail from an imap account and either leave it on the server or not (works fine with my mac account).

Ack, I'm not trying to sell it, but it might be worth a look - it takes a few days to get adjusted to any new mail client so let me know how you get on eh?

Last time I tried Mailsmith it didnt't scale with my mail needs. :)


about 150.000 messages distributed in 1.000 mailbox.
And about 26.000 different email addresses.

I really need a system where all of that can be accessed by views more than a priori folders.

I tried to import my mail in Mailsmith during 3 days it did only... 50.000 mails


Argh! Gentlemen, thanks for the comments but this is not about Mailsmith or any existing MUA (Mail User Agent)... this about UI features I'd like to see and I'm hoping for feedback on what you think of my ideas, and to share any ideas you have on the subject!


/end rant to put thread back on track ;)

hehehe not but you see Boris... Mailsmith is... ;) For the UI, yes we understood, but you can't control your comments and discussions.

Anyway for the specific UI thingy and the tagging, it's not so much the problem of adding tags, but managing them or even better to let them die. How much a software can deal with your tagging like a biological species.

If you have a plant at home, you will pour water and it will be fine, if you keep attention every days to something, it will have a good shape. But if you don't care anymore it will perish. So we have a tendency in our western culture to build to keep everything in order, to classify, to keep safe, etc. But why not let go the information and having it disappear slowly, like things rotting in a forest.

Let's imagine an Email UI where you have pieces of emails disappearing, and you will discover holes in your mails like there are holes in your socks.

For the tagging, so you will move from adding tags but some of them will slowly disappear, good or not, on which basis, frequency of use?

Or you can have another metaphor, one of a navigation on ontological map where some of the branches are hidden by a thick fog, you discover part of your environment progressing on the roads of your ontolgy and you don't necessary the environments which are very far.

1- http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/

2- Tags that fade away do so naturally. It does not mean they disappear or are deleted, nor does removing, editing or neglecting a tag mean that any email is lost. Other means of finding are still available (search for instance).

3- yes tags that reduce in frequency of use fade. As the information associated with them. This happens because the information associated to them is no longer prevalent to you and therefore no longer clutters your environment. Again, they can be "found anew"...

4- "I want to make things I can throw away." ;)

5- just watch me control my comments... ;)


Boris got it...

I will explain.