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!