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Why is Linux Email Stuck in the 90s?

Are FOSS Mailers Stagnating? Take a Cue from Google

  • September 13, 2010
  • By Joe Brockmeier
Email, love it or loathe it, there's no getting away from it. On an average day I process hundreds of emails, but haven't yet found an open source mail user agent (MUA) that I really like. Ten years ago this wasn't surprising, but today? Why aren't open source mailers keeping up with the rest of the Linux desktop, and being blown away by Gmail?

In the 14 years I've used Linux, I've tried pretty much every mailer. Mutt, Pine, Alpine, Sylpheed, and the list goes on. In the last year, I've checked in with SpiceBird, Thunderbird, Evolution, KMail, and Claws (formerly Sylpheed-Claws, the bleeding edge of Sylpheed). They're all solid mailers, but it's like time stopped somewhere around 2002 feature-wise. None of the open source mail clients have truly stepped up to the plate with anything new.

You can't say the same thing about other applications. Firefox has improved by leaps and bounds. OpenOffice.org is far better today (though still clunky) than it was just five years ago. Media players have improved by a wide margin -- Banshee is every bit as good as iTunes (that may be damning with faint praise), and Rhythmbox and Amarok have also kept pace with user needs over the years.

Look around and you'll find quite a few examples of open source desktop apps getting better and better. The open source mailers? Not so much.

It's tempting to think that email has peaked, there's nothing to improve it. Email has been around a long, long time -- so there's not much room for innovation or improving the user experience, right? But if you look at Gmail, that's obviously not the case.

Some of Thunderbird's touted new features in the past few releases, like search, starring, and archiving, all hailed from Gmail initially. While Firefox continues to break new ground and add really interesting new stuff like Panorama to deal with the clutter of all the sites we browse, Thunderbird 3.0 had innovative new features like... tabs.

In the meantime, Gmail has gained the aforementioned features that Thunderbird copied, plus things like the Priority Inbox that came out recently. If you haven't tried it, Priority Inbox learns who you email the most and provides a separate "inbox" for those emails -- which is an easier way to sort your mail and respond to important mail while leaving things like the neighborhood discussion list in your inbox but out of the way.

Gmail, and Gmail Labs, provide a lot of little touches that make mail easier to wade through. Creating a document out of an email or thread, for instance. Of course it's tied into Google Docs -- but it'd be nice to see one of the open source mailers integrate with OO.org or just save mail in Open Document Format directly. Integration of Chat and Google Voice directly in mail are also fairly useful.

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