Desktop Email Client vs. GMail: Why desktop mail clients are still better than the GMail interface

The GMail user interface, while very good and much better than some of the others lacks some useful functionality to make it a complete replacement for a desktop email client like Outlook.

Joe Kissell writes in CIO magazine about the six reasons why desktop email clients still rule. He opines that he would take a desktop email client any day and provides the following reason, and six more:

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.

Much has been written by many on this subject. As long ago as 2005, Cedric pronounced his verdict. Brad Shorr had a more measured comparison that I read before I made the switch about a month ago. Lifehacker pronounced the definitive comparison (IMHO it fell flat, their verdicts were shallow). Rakesh Agarwal presented some good insights and suggestions.

I read all of this and tried to decide what to do about a month ago. Here is a description of my usage.

My Usage

1. Email Accounts

I have about a dozen. Some are through GMail, some are on domains that I own, one is at Yahoo, one at Hotmail and then there are a smattering of others like aol.com, ZoHo and mail.com. While employed (currently a free agent) I have always had an Exchange Server to look at as well.

2. Email volume

Excluding work related email, I receive about 20 or 30 messages a day (after eliminating SPAM).

3. Contacts

I have about 1200 contacts in my address book.

4. Mobile device

I have a Windows Mobile based phone and I use it for calendaring, email and as a telephone. I like to keep my complete contact list on my phone.

5. Access to Email

I am NOT a Power-User who keeps reading email all the time (there are some who will challenge this). If I can read my email on my phone, I’m usually happy. But, I prefer a big screen view when possible.

6. I like to use instant messengers. Since I have accounts on AOL IM, Y!, HotMail and Google, I use a single application that supports all the flavors of IM.

Seems simple enough, right? Think again. Here is why, after migrating entirely to GMail, I have switched back to a desktop client.

The Problem

1. Google Calendar and Contact Synchronization is a load of crap.

Google does somethings well. GMail (the mail and parts of the interface) are one of these things. They support POP and IMAP, they support consolidation of accounts through POP or IMAP, they allow email to be sent as if from another account. They are far ahead of the rest. With Google Labs you can get a pretty slick interface. But, Calendar and Contact Synchronization really suck.

For example, I start off with 1200 contacts and synchronize my mobile device with Google. How do I do it? By creating an Exchange Server called m.google.com and having it provide Calendar and Contacts. You can read about that here. After synchronizing the two, I had 1240 or so contacts on my phone. Ok, I had sent email to 40 people through GMail who were not in my address book. Great!

Then I changed one persons email address and the wheels came off the train. It tried to synchronize everything and ended up with some errors.

I started off with about 120 entries in my calendar after synchronizing every hour, I now have 270 or so. Well, each time it felt that contacts had been changed, it refreshed them and I now have seventeen appointments tomorrow saying it is someones birthday. Really, do I get extra cake or something?

2. Google Chat and Contact Synchronization don’t work well together.

After synchronizing contacts my Google Chat went to hell in a hand-basket. There’s no way to tell why, I just don’t see anyone in my Google Chat window any more.

Google does some things well. The GMail server side is one of them. As Bing points out, Google Search returns tons of crap (not that Bing does much better). Calendar, Contacts and Chat are still not in the “does well” category.

So, it is back to Outlook Calendar and Contacts and POP Email. I will get all the email to land in my GMail account though, nice backup and all that. But GMail Web interface, bye-bye. Outlook 2007 here I come, again.

The best of both worlds

The stable interface between a phone and Outlook, a stable calendar, contacts and email interface (hangs from time to time but the button still works), and a nice online backup at Google. And, if I’m at a PC other than my own, the web interface works in a pinch.

POP all mail from a variety of accounts into one GMail account and access just that one account from both the telephone and the desktop client. And install that IM client application again.

What do I lose? The threaded message format that GMail has (that I don’t like). Yippie!

What I learnt from the GMAIL outage

We all have heard about it, many of us (most of us) were affected by it, some of us actually saw it. This makes it a fertile subject for conversation; in person and over a cold pint, or online. I have read at least a dozen blog posts that explain why the GMAIL outage underscores the weakness of, and the reason for imminent failure of cloud computing. I have read at least two who explain why this outage proves the point that enterprises must have their own mail servers.  There are graphs showing the number of tweets at various phases of the outage. There are articles about whether GMAIL users can sue Google over this failure.

The best three quotes I have read in the aftermath of the Gmail outage are these:

“So by the end of next May, we should start seeing the first of the Google Outage babies being born.” – Carla Levy, Systems Analyst

“Now I don’t look so silly for never signing up for an e-mail address, do I?” – Eric Newman, Pile-Driver Operator

“Remember the time when 150 million people couldn’t use Gmail for nearly ten years? From 1993–2003? And every year before that? Unimaginable.” – Adam Carmody, Safe Installer

Admittedly, all three came from “The Onion“.

This article is about none of those things. To me, the GMAIL outage could not have come at a better time. I have just finished reconfiguring where my mail goes and how it gets there. The outage gave me a chance to make sure that all the links worked well.

I have a GMAIL account and I have email that comes to other (non-GMAIL) addresses. I use GMAIL as a catcher for the non-GMAIL addresses using the “Imports and Forwarding” capability of GMAIL. That gives me a single web based portal to all of my email. The email is also POP3’ed down to a PC, the one which I am using to write this blog post. I get to read email on my phone (using its POP3 capability) from my GMAIL account. Google is a great backup facility, a nice web interface, and a single place where I can get all of my email. And, if for any reason it were to go kaput, as it did on the 1st, in a pinch, I can get to the stuff in a second or even a third place.

But, more importantly, if GMAIL is unavailable for 100 minutes, who gives a crap. Technology will fail. We try to make it better but it will still fail from time to time. Making a big hoopla about it is just plain dumb. On the other hand, an individual could lose access to his or her GMAIL for a whole bunch of reasons; not just because Google had an outage. Learn to live with it.

So what did I learn from the GMAIL outage? It gave me a good chance to see a bunch of addicts, and how they behave irrationally when they can’t get their “fix”. I’m a borderline addict myself (I do read email on my phone, as though I get things of such profound importance that instant reaction is a matter of life and death). The GMAIL outage showed me what I would become if I did not take some corrective action.

Technology has given us the means to “shrink the planet” and make a tightly interconnected world. With a few keystrokes, I can converse with a person next door, in the next state or half way across the world. Connectivity is making us accessible everywhere; in our homes, workplaces, cars, and now, even in an aircraft. It has given us the ability to inundate ourselves with information, and many of us have been over-indulging (to the point where it has become unhealthy).