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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

What I Use: Email forever


My first experience with email came in college. When I got that piece of paper with the randomly assigned user name and password to my first Unix account as a freshman at UC San Diego, I didn’t realize that I was starting a lifelong (well, at least so far!) relationship with the world of text sent to username@something.something. But I was.

We used it for all sorts of things. I sent emails to the few friends of mine from high school who had also gotten accounts—there were about four of us. I have fond memories of sitting in a computer lab, composing my first few messages to friends in San Francisco and Seattle.

Back then, email was the only near-real-time communication medium available to most college students. By today’s standards, it was ridiculously primitive: You had to send the message and then wait, hoping that the person on the other end would reply. (There was a unix program called talk that was a true real-time chat interface; it was banned on all the personal accounts at UCSD in those days.) At the time, the idea that you could send as much text as you want, for free, instantly to a friend across the country or the world was simply mind-blowing.

Oh, for those heady days when email was amazing and novel and beloved.

Before too long I was able to check email directly from my dorm room via dial-up to the unix servers. A few years later, email finally arrived on my Mac with my discovery of Eudora. The first version of the Eudora app I used was a weird, hacked version that literally pretended to be a dial-up terminal connection; you’d write a script that would allow Eudora to dial in, log you into your account, and then trigger a connection to your mail server to download mail back over the modem line.

In other words, my Mac was able to do Internet email before it was actually on the Internet. How very strange.

I used Eudora for a very, very long time. It was always a quirky program, dating as it did from the very earliest days of Macs on the Internet. Eudora was compatible (it saved its mailboxes in the unix mbox format) yet quirky. I became a mail-filing fanatic, creating mailboxes nested inside other mail folders, building auto-filing filters for all my mailboxes. I saved most of my mail.

But all good things come to an end. Eudora became increasingly outdated, and development essentially ceased. At this point, Apple Mail was running on every Mac, and Spotlight made it easy to search for just the right messages when you needed them.

Switching to Mail and relying on Spotlight changed my relationship with email forever. I made an effort for a little while to build Eudora-style filters in Mail and move my mail to many different folders, but over time I realized that if I could use Spotlight to find anything when I needed it, I didn’t need to organize my email myself. I ended up disabling my filters, filing my mail directly into a couple of archive mailboxes based on which account had received the mail.

But Apple Mail can be a problematic partner. Over the years, its fortunes have waxed and waned. Sometimes Apple Mail seems supremely cool and useful, apply cutting-edge features to let me communicate with the world in better ways than I’d ever thought possible. But most of the time, it’s slow and searching is unreliable. At some point I switched to Gmail as my mail provider, and every so often I would give up on Mail and use Gmail for a while. When a new version of OS X arrived, I’d go back to Mail to try it out—and usually give up after a few months.

These past few years, though, I’ve really broken with Mail entirely on the desktop. I’ve come to appreciate the nerdy simplicity of viewing the Gmail interface through the friendly, Macifying lens of Mailplane, a sort of custom browser designed just for Gmail. One of the things I appreciate most about Gmail is that it supports my status as an email pack rat by providing a lot of storage space and a really good email search engine. I can find email in a heartbeat in Gmail, while finding the same messages in Mail (on the Mac or iOS) is slow and often unreliable.

On iOS, I don’t have as clear a story. Sometimes I think Mail is still the simplest and most reliable approach. I have tried other apps—Spark from Readdle and Outlook from Microsoft both have some nice features. Right now I’m mostly using Outlook on my iPad and Mail on my iPhone, but check back next month and my answer might be different.

The way we all use email is changing. A lot of new forms of communicating are making email far less necessary, which I think is a good thing. Email is bad, but it got bad mostly because it was the only good way to communicate with people on the Internet for a while—so everything anyone could think of got jammed into this one channel. Things seem to be easing off now.

Will email ever be good again, or is it just withering and dying? What it’s got going for it is universality: Almost everyone has email and you can reach anyone with email without downloading an app (and then switching to yet another app to contact a different person, and so on). It’s simple, it’s direct, and everyone’s got it.

The ways we use email will keep changing—and the tools we use to process it will continue to change, too. But fully expect to be using email, in some form or other, for the rest of my life. For better or for worse. When I got married, I knew I was making a lifelong commitment—little did I know that when I signed up for pa151@sdcc13.ucsd.edu, I was unwittingly starting another long-term relationship.

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