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Greg Black

gjb at gbch dot net
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Sat, 10 Oct 2009

Mail Client Software Keeps Getting Clunkier

There was a time, before the WWW, when email client software was clumsy beyond belief—those who remember the original mail command and UUCP bang-path email addresses will know that things improved over a decade or two.

Then, with the growth of the Internet, graphical mail user agents (MUAs) appeared. Some of them were better than others, but they all suffered from some irritations. At the same time, the text-based MUAs continued to be developed.

Then, just when you might have expected that we were on the threshold of some really good software, things just stopped. I like to blame Microsoft for developments that I don’t like, but I don’t know if that’s fair in this instance and it’s not really important.

One of the early graphical MUAs was Exmh and, despite some clunkiness, it was a pretty useful utility. So much so that I persuaded my wife to use it when she decided to enter the email age. And she has been happy with it for about twelve years. I also used it for a few years, but eventually changed to a text-based MUA as I found myself dealing with ever-increasing quantities of email and discovered that I preferred the speed of the keyboard over the purported convenience of the mouse.

And there things stayed for several years. Recently it became necessary to update my wife’s computer—it was a seven-year-old box running an almost equally old operating system and the hardware was almost on its last legs and some of the software (e.g., Mozilla-1.x, OpenOffice-1.0) was simply inadequate to handle modern websites and data. And there were also more than a few security vulnerabilities in the operating system.

The search for a replacement, which she wanted to be silent, first led to selection of a Sunray thin client workstation. A number of factors resulted in the abandonment of that plan, but one thing that happened while I was exploring it was the discovery that Exmh, which has not been further developed since version 2.7.2 was released in January 2004, was probably not going to be an option on the intended Solaris platform.

That was no surprise, since it’s what happens to older software that doesn’t match the dominant design. So it became necessary to research alternatives that she could live with. There’s no shortage of choice and I won’t list any of them here. Where there is no choice is in the user interface—yes, there are differences, but they are insignificant against the overall architecture. And all of them, although faster in things like actual message display than Exmh, are much slower and more painful to use. I tested several and reviewed all those I could discover and they were all the same.

Eventually, I set up the one I thought best (for various other technical reasons not relevant to this discussion) and tried to teach my wife how to work with it. This was a disaster. She was already upset about the other changes I was going to force on her for the “upgrade”, but she uses email frequently now for her work and the modern software simply didn’t cut it for her.

Fortunately, the Sunray project died for other reasons and I had to find an alternative. And that machine, an Eee PC that was originally intended for me, runs Ubuntu and still provides Exmh as an optional package. Crisis averted. For now.

Sadly, I see no signs of any of the MUA authors making any effort to make their software more functional—adding bling is popular, but you’d think these people would use their software and would get frustrated with its clunky behaviour and would therefore want to improve it.

I still hope that something better than anything we have now will arrive in the next three to four years so that, the next time I have to upgrade my wife’s computer, I’ll be able to introduce her to a new MUA that she will be able to learn to like.