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Is There Such a Thing as Better Email?

I wish I could snap my fingers and have the end all solution to the every repeating question “Is there such as thing as better email?” I hear repeatedly in my line of work about how frustrated people are with their email. It is endless. Unfortunately, there is no easy one-size-fits-all solution for this problem. People simply want better email. Are there options available?

Email is a part of a digital society

In our digital society, we cannot function without email. If you think that you can, you have convinced yourself of some foolery or your really have no digital impact in your life at all. I will put my belief in the foolery as you cannot spend your life in complete denial of the world’s digital impact anymore. If you are in your eighties, you might be able to convince me of your ability to remain in denial for the remainder of your life, but I will also feel sorry for the wonderful things that you are missing out on. I know from experience in my own life and the interaction with my own “elders” also known as my only surviving grandparents that there is so much I want to share with them that I simply cannot because of that digital gap – the divide is just too large.

Become computer functional

All of that being said, if you are an employed individual in today’s workforce – self-employed, small-business, big business, or otherwise – you cannot afford to ignore our digital landscape. You cannot afford to squeeze by with minimal knowledge of the workings of technology. It is just not possible. You need to gain the enough computer fundamentals to become “computer functional.” Notice I did not say, “computer savvy?” I just want you functional. I am not saying that anyone must become a computer expert. I think that is too much to ask of anyone, but I expect more of anyone working or living in today’s world than just “faking it” and hoping no one notices that they have no clue what they are doing. There is no more acceptance for those that “fake it until they make it.” There will come a point where “faking it” will not get you by.

The chances are that someone will notice. The even greater odds are that your inability to perform simple tasks will impact someone to a greater level than you realize. This is not an attack on anyone, this is stating the simple facts. If you do not gain simple computer knowledge, you are going to fall behind and you are going to impact negatively those around you. You are going to impact your own life negatively because of your own inability to function in the bare minimal capacity required to function in society and business. Even worse is that you will be replaced by a much younger and savvier workforce that is willing and able to do what you can do faster and more efficiently. I do not think that it is too much to ask that you educate yourself and actually work at learning something. Life is about learning. Change is inevitable and learning comes with change. We grow when we embrace change and learn from the challenges that are placed in front of us. It may not be easy, but at least we can accept the change with open arms.

Do not be a technology ostrich

We do not want to become like ostriches. If we stick our heads in the sand, it does not go away. Technology is here to stay. It did not go away when the first room sized mainframes appeared. It did not go away when the first Macintosh computers were made. It has not slowed down since the desktop computer has become a household word. It will not slow down in the future. I reckon that it will pick up speed before it levels off any. Going back to the ostrich analogy, I am going to be very frank, if we leave ourselves vulnerable with our buttocks in the air – exposed – we leave ourselves merely that – exposed. When we are exposed we are more likely to become the victim. We have all heard of the stories of people being duped on the internet, but when we refuse to accept change and embrace what it brings with it, we are no different than these internet scam victims. In fact, we could be them one day in the not so distant future.

Alas this was not intended to be about how people are resistant to the changes in technology, this is about email and how it often causes stress in our life. We love to hate it sometimes. For me it is the fact that I have multiple accounts and they are different types of accounts. In actuality, it is not solely about that I have multiple accounts, but rather that I get a lot of email and along with that comes a lot of SPAM. I am not talking about the meat byproduct that no one likes to eat, I am talking about the bulk email that no one likes to receive. I am talking about that thorn in everyone’s side that no one wants to talk about but everyone is content to roll their eyes when someone mentions it.

Do not stress over email

However, right now I am going to mainly address the sheer amount of email and just how easy it can be to handle even if you have multiple accounts. Email does not need to be difficult. It is all in how you access it. If you have a smart phone, you probably have already learned how to access it there and that is great because I am not going to address that. That is an entirely different topic. Everyone will have their own opinion there. They are as many phones on the market as there are email addresses out there it seems so addressing each nuance in phones is just as much stress as email itself. I will not venture into mobile devices and checking emails via those devices here. Maybe later.

Email type is a personal choice

First let me state that if you are using web mail for your email, you are probably not going to like my opinions. These are my opinions and I am entitled to them. However, let me preface this by saying that over the many years I have had email addresses, I have used many email interfaces and email clients and frankly I think that I have some authority and expertise in the area to make these conclusions. Everyone is welcome to take what they want from this. These are my opinions.

Real World Better Email Review

All of that being said, I am going to give you a “real world” review. I am not going to give you all the technical mumble jumble about the various options I review here. I know that most people that I have heard complaints from will not understand the technical stuff, so I am going to skip it. Most people want to know why it makes it better for them as an individual in this busy world and the way they work or think. At least I hope they are thinking. They do not want anything else. They really do not care that it has Web 2.0 features or has the latest Java widgets. They do not understand what those are nor will they care. What they want to know is what will it do to make their life easier on the email front. That is what I am going to do here.

Before I get into that, however, I am going to say to all of the people out there that think that email is just email and it should all be the same, please just sit down and read. The vary nature of anything is that we have varying levels of service. Say you are going to have your car detailed. You ask for the silver level detail package. You know that it only includes certain features. If you want the platinum level service it comes with certain other, nicer features. However, you probably pay a nicer price to reflect those additional features. This does not mean that the silver level detail package is a bad or inferior package if all you need is the silver level package, but it is different than the platinum package. This is the same with the various email services that are available out there. Let me reemphasize that: different is not bad. Different is just different. It is not difficult, it is just different.

Often we get too comfortable with what we know and we are too afraid to try something new. This cripples us. Comfortable becomes our crutch so to speak. This makes us more of a burden than we should be. Do not be a burden. Be self-motivated and willing to learn. Old dogs can be taught new tricks and so can every individual. Even adults can learn new things when it comes to technology and email. Please do not stop learning because something is different. Please continue to accept that things will not stay the same when your email is in the equation. Just when you are really comfortable with how it all works, something will change. Accept that and move on.

Not all email is created the same

Now that we all know and understand that no two email accounts are created the same, please understand that no two email accounts will serve you the same way. If you use every email account for the exact same purpose, why do you have multiple accounts? If you do not use every email account for the exact same purpose, why would you expect it to function the exact same way? It should not. You should expect different functions for the various things you need it to do.

Let me explain the two basic and most common types of email services out there: IMAP or POP. Your email account is most likely one of these two even if you do not know which one. It is okay that you do not know which one right now (or that you do not even care what it is). On the back end of your email address (behind all the fancy computers and internet mumble jumble) your email came through an IMAP email server or a POP email server. A POP email server was the most common for a very long time. IMAP is becoming more and more prominent in our ever changing and demanding digital world. See change is good because IMAP brings us a lot of neat features that are really good for the way we work with lots of different devices and what we expect in return.

To break it down, let me define what each one stands for:

POP = Post Office Protocol
IMAP = Internet Message Access Protocol

Protocol, what?

What is a protocol? A dictionary definition for protocol that relates to this topic is as follows:

Protocol = Computing a set of rules governing the exchange or transmission of data between devices.

When we take this definition and think it through, you can piece together what each of the different types of email types can do. They are not the same. Nor should we expect the same things from them.

POP, or the Post Office Protocol, email does exactly what it says it does – takes the message from one individual and delivers it to another individual. Once the email is delivered, the server is done. Think about regular postal mail for a minute, your mailmen are the server and when they deliver your mail to your mail box, their service is complete. It is your responsibility to manage your delivered mail from that point forward. The same holds true for POP email accounts, once you receive your email it is your responsibility to manage your email.

IMAP email servers on the other hand are a bit more complex in that they provide a more complex interaction with their users. They are offering to be an “access point” for individuals. They are not saying that they are completely dumping all responsibility on you once they have made the initial delivery.

To take this one step further, according to Wikipedia:

POP supports simple download-and-delete requirements for access to remote mailboxes…Although most POP clients have an option to leave mail on server after download, e-mail clients using POP generally connect, retrieve all messages, store them on the user’s PC as new messages, delete them from the server, and then disconnect. Other protocols, notably IMAP, (Internet Message Access Protocol) provide more complete and complex remote access to typical mailbox operations…
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post_Office_Protocol]

As I previously stated, POP is an individual to individual transfer and termination. Once the delivery is made, you as the receiving individual are responsible for the care and upkeep of the email. IMAP on the other hand is a transfer from an individual, but you as the receiver have multiple ways to access this transmission and may do so with as many methods as you choose.

Let me reiterate that I am not saying that IMAP is superior to POP in any way. They have their advantages and disadvantages. I use both every day. They are just different.

Email access method is a personal choice

Now let me address how we access our email. This is important because this is as different as the reason we use email. What we use should reflect what we are using our email for. What our email address is should also reflect what our email’s purpose is. Please understand that email addresses are a dime in a dozen and credibility is hard to come by. Every Jane, Dick, John, and Harry have an email address. I cannot determine if you are legitimately doing business or if you are some hack living on the street if you are not legitimately promoting your business. If you are in business, get your domain name and use it.

How we check our email will typically be done through an email client. These come in the form of a computer program or a web application. What is the difference? A computer program is a program that you install on your computer’s hard drive and it runs whether you are connected to the internet or not. A web application is something that is run in a web browser (Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, etc) and does not need to be installed on your computer’s hard drive. A web application is often referred to as Web Mail.

Each of these methods have their advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious of these are that with a computer program you can access your email that has already been downloaded from the email server (POP or IMAP) whenever you want regardless of your current internet access. You can compose emails while you are not connected to the internet. You have total freedom to read and write while you are off-line. You will just send those emails or receive new emails when you reconnect to the internet again. On the other hand, with a web email interface you cannot read or write emails without being connected to the internet. You have to be connected in order to access the very basic of any email tasks.

I do not know about the majority of you, but there are times when I am not around an internet connection even as prevalent as “free wi-fi” connections are. I may be sitting in my car waiting for my children to get done with their various activities or at a doctor’s office where there is just not a connection at all. Sure, I might have my phone with me but sometimes I might need to get things done on my laptop. Somethings are just more efficient and better suited for a real computer over the micro-touch screens that are convenient on-the-go but not as efficient for composing long emails or formatting documents. I also might need to send emails with a variety of different attachments which I do not have on my phone.

Thus, I favor the flexibility and ultimately mobility of the stand-alone email clients over web-mail clients any day. I do like the flexibility that IMAP email accounts offer so do not get confused by the statement that I prefer stand-alone email clients. It does not mean that I favor one email type over another. I personally have no strong preference for one or the other as I believe they each serve their purpose. I do have a leaning to one more and more because of its features and flexibility, but it does not suddenly negate the other.

Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself and choose which method you use, but you must understand that no two email accounts are the same. I suppose if you have two email accounts from the same provider, they could be considered the same. However, their purposes are different, otherwise you would not have two email account in the first place. If you have two email accounts from Yahoo or Gmail for example, they will function almost identically fundamentally if they are the same level of account – free account vs free account, etc. However, if you have an email account from Yahoo and an email account from Gmail, they will not function the same. They are not the same. Even if you are using one account to check the other, they will still not be the same. Fundamentally on the back end they are still very different account. They are serviced by different providers and thus very unique.

You might need to use a 3rd party program

If you want to treat your very different email accounts the same, you need to use something that will treat them the same regardless of their differences. Typically, you will find the best performance for this with your stand alone email clients such as Thunderbird, Mail, Outlook, etc. Once they are setup to handle the various email accounts, you can handle them all in the same program and handle them very easily and efficiently with very little thought about how different they are. Fortunately, there are a variety of stand alone email clients out there for us to choose from so we can find one that fits our unique needs as they are not all created equally.

Is there a such thing as better email? I do not think that there needs to be. I think that many of user’s frustrations are merely because of the way that they are using their email – sending and receiving email. They feel trapped in a restrictive and overly simple web mail use case that is not working for them in every case. They become too comfortable with this and when it no longer is working best for them they are too afraid to move onto something better because they do not understand it.

Better email is simply easy email. It is easy and convenient to receive. It is easy and convenient to send. If you have multiple email accounts it is being able to check all of those accounts in an easy and convenient location without having to learn a complicated program in the process. There is nothing fancy about it. If you respond to an email, does it know that you are responding from the email address that it was received at? Better email has fewer mishaps. It just works.