Lately I’ve seen a few articles from other tech writers championing some of the latest new mobile email programs for their innovative takes on improving the email experience on the small screen. Mobile apps are generally less capable than their desktop counterparts and email programs have always been far more feature rich and capable on the desktop computers. Even the most basic web-browser-based email services are often far more useful on desktop web browsers than within mobile phone apps.
I’ve been using Microsoft Outlook as my preferred email program since the late 1990’s. Outlook 98 was a break-through advance in managing email along with all other related personal information that you might need to manage in your life. I have emails, journals, and schedules from 1995 that I can still access and search. Nothing else has since come close to the functionality that Outlook has on the desktop, much less on a smartphone. Well, EmClient does come pretty close on Windows and surpasses Outlook in some ways like Gmail support, but again that’s a desktop program.
Email has been the primary method of electronic communications for decades. Nothing has really been able to significantly improve upon it. In fact, you need an email account to sign up for practically every service that aims to be better than email. So why not just use email?
Flag for Follow Up (Scheduling)
Anyway, maybe it’s because mobile email programs still mostly suck. Some of them have finally started supporting flags. Flags are simple tags that mark an email as something that you might need to reference later. Gmail has similar tags called stars. The idea is that you want to flag the emails that you need to do something about. Then you can mark the message as complete when you finish. Outlook on the desktop has a mechanism for mark complete, but no mobile email client does. At least none that sync with anything like Exchange. We’re also missing flag reminders on mobile devices. If I get an email that is essentially a task request, I’ll flag it with a reminder scheduled for a time when I might be able to complete that task. This is especially important for tasks with due dates and in Outlook, those emails automatically show up in my tasks listing. On a smart phone, there’s no way to do that, yet on the desktop we’ve been doing it for decades. And unfortunately, email reminders set from the desktop do not sync to smartphones nor do they show up in the tasks lists… not even in Microsoft’s own Windows Phone.
Microsoft’s Outlook for Android and iOS (which is really a third party app the Microsoft recently bought) does have some scheduling capabilities, but they don’t sync with Outlook on the desktop or an Exchange server or the free Outlook.com email service. That makes them pretty difficult to manage if you use multiple devices for email. Plus it moves the messages to a separate folder on the server, which certainly isn’t what I might want.
Inbox by Gmail is Google’s new email program for Android and that also includes some interesting scheduling features (called snoozing), but it only works for Gmail and emails tagged as “snoozed” aren’t available on the desktop in Gmail’s web browser interface. So again, that’s not helpful.
Then there are category labels and conditional formatting. Gmail translates category labels into folders at least when accessing it via IMAP. Outlook categories are more like metadata tags. I can create rules that automatically categorize emails with any number of categories depending on their contents, but they can also be sorted into folders. I can specify conditional formatting rules in my custom view settings that change the colors of how specific emails appear in the listing. On the desktop, this makes it very easy to visually sort through my inbox and quickly see the types of emails that I’m looking for. It’s not just an endless flat list of subjects and names.
Some email programs on smartphones put randomly colored boxes/circles with single letters inside the boxes next to each message (Gmail & Outlook on Android do this). This proves to make things even more difficult to organize since there’s really no significance to the colored boxes. It’s very distracting and doesn’t offer up any useful information about the contents or category of those emails. To be fair, Gmail on Android does show the category label in a light grey box next to each message, but there’s no way to choose a color for that and therefore gets lost visually.
With Outlook and Exchange, I can create all sorts of rules for sorting and organizing emails. Most of them are saved to the server and their actions run on the server whether a client device is connected or not. That’s great for mobile devices because smartphones have no capacity for running rules and filters themselves. Unfortunately, smartphone email clients also have no capacity for editing or creating server side rules. You have to launch Outlook on your desktop or open Outlook Web Access from your Exchange server in order to set those up. Of course, the free email services from the likes of Gmail, Outlook.com, etc. often include server-side rule-based sorting capabilities as well, but again, there’s no way to see or edit them from your smartphone’s email app.
Say I want to email all of my friends from college with one message that goes to all of them. In Outlook, I can hit the filter by category button, choose “College friends”, Ctrl+A to select them all and then hit the email button. Or if I want to invite them all to a reunion of some sort, I’ll hit the “meeting” button and enter all the details of the appointment request. You would think it couldn’t be easier! Oh, but it can. You can also create contact groups in Outlook for easily communicating with the same group of people. I can make a group called “Pocketnow” and when I want to send that group an email, I just start typing the name of the group in the “to” field, it autocompletes before I finish, and instantly I’m emailing that whole group. Now THAT’s easy!
Contact groups in Exchange 2013 don’t sync with any smartphone email clients that I’ve used. Windows Phone does have contact groups that you can set up on the phone, but they only sync to your Microsoft Account. They’re not accessible from Exchange and they’re not accessible from Outlook 2013 and they’re not accessible from the Windows 8 People app. So that’s not terribly useful! They do sync to Outlook 2013 as category names though sometimes. It’s not very reliable and it’s not a two-way sync meaning I can’t specify categories for contacts in Outlook and have them appear in contact groups in Windows Phone.
Now, if you have Office 365, contact groups can be something completely different. In an Office 365 Enterprise scenario you can create groups that are really more like “Rooms” in Windows Phone 8. Office 365 groups are areas where you can share conversations, files, and a calendar with all members of the group. Unfortunately, these Office 365 groups can only be accessed within the web browser. There’s no interface for them in Outlook or on any smartphone.
Once upon a time, from between 1998 and 2002, mobile devices had this great feature for working with draft emails. I could start writing an email on my desktop, transfer it to my PDA, write some more while on the train, transfer it back to my desktop and send it. It was so great for mobile email! Microsoft removed that feature from their Windows CE/Pocket PC mobile operating system in 2002 and it never returned. You can’t even sync draft email folders from Exchange Server 2013 on Windows Phone. A few other smartphone operating systems actually do sync drafts with email servers, but the feature is sorely absent from most or only partially supported. The Gmail app on Android can sync drafts with Gmail accounts, but not IMAP, and it will hang when trying to access an Exchange 2013 drafts folder. The mail app on iOS can work with drafts on Exchange though, which is probably kind of embarrassing for Microsoft’s Windows Phone email team. Sometimes reply/forward status icons don’t even sync between mobile email clients!
Formatting & composing
One of the reasons that Microsoft removed the ability to work with draft emails in 2002 was because an executive had a highly-formatted draft email message saved and when transferring it to the mobile device, all the formatting work was removed. Instead of enabling round-trip draft email syncing, Microsoft removed the capability completely. For the past 15 years, very few mobile email clients have attempted to really enable any kind of HTML or rich text formatting capabilities that have been available on the desktops for decades. We hear that’s about to change with Windows 10’s phone version of the universal Outlook app, but it remains to be seen how extensive the formatting capabilities will actually be.
Being able to create bulleted lists, heading styles, and embedded graphics would be pretty awesome. Some desktop email clients even support embedding graphical emoticons. Why isn’t that available in mobile email programs? One killer formatting feature that I’d hope to see in Windows 10 for phones would be the ability to create hyperlinks on selected words. I use that capability on the desktop a lot.
Inline email replies kind of goes along here as well. A lot of smartphone email programs don’t allow you to go into a quoted email message that was sent to you and add your replies next to each question or comment in a list. If they do allow inline replies, they don’t do it very well. Outlook on the desktop has an excellent feature for dealing with inline replies. Once you start one, it can automatically prefix that line with your name in brackets (along with color/font formatting that you can specify in the options). This makes it extremely easy for your recipients to see which inline responses were written by you! It’s very very useful! Nothing like that is available on smartphone email clients.
Do you ever find yourself typing the same thing in your email replies over and over? One thing that’s awesome about Outlook 2013 on the desktop is the “Quick Parts” feature. You can save clippings of text and insert them into your email replies with two clicks. This can be a huge efficiency booster, and would be extremely useful on a smartphone where you really don’t want to type too much. Unfortunately, there are not many email clients with that kind of feature.
Sorting, searching, and organizational options
Desktop email grouping, sorting, and organizational options are still decades more robust than smartphone based email clients. In Outlook 2013 on my Surface Pro, I can sort emails by absolutely any criteria; sender name, recipient, subject, date, file size, category, flag due date, importance, etc. It’s pretty limitless, but that’s not all. I can also create sorting groups. Say I want to see my emails sorted first by category name, then by the from field, then by date. In Outlook, with the “Group By” feature, that’s as simple as dragging one column name after the other.
On your smartphone, your email sorting order is probably hard coded to only show the newest messages at the top and you have no way of organizing them in any other manner. Search capabilities are still important too. On my desktop, I’ve got multiple PST files that have my important emails organized spanning back to 1996. All are indexed and the search capabilities are far superior to anything on a smartphone.
Say I want to find all emails from Meegan with the word “phone” in them. On your smartphone, good luck with that. You’re not likely to find what you’re looking for and in Gmail, the search results are probably going to return the entire thread, instead of the specific messages you’re looking for. On my desktop, I can even save specific search queries as folders that I can easily access and will be automatically updated as new email is received.
Some mobile email apps have a selection mode where you can tap a checkbox next to each email and then perform actions on all of them at once. That’s hugely tedious compared to the selection capabilities that we’ve had on Outlook since the previous century. In a real email program running on a desktop operating system, I can click the first email to select it, then hold down the shift key, and click the last email in the selection to select all of the emails between the two. That’s 3 steps. On a tablet like the Surface Pro, that’s 3 touch screen taps (if you’ve already got the on-screen keyboard showing). Then I can take another tap to categorize, delete, move, or forward all of those emails. It doesn’t get much easier than that.
Forget about that kind of efficiency on any smartphone email client. Most these days are implementing silly swipe left or right gestures that you have to perform on each email that you want to apply whatever action to. The swipe gesture functions are never obvious either. That’s not progress at all. (Although around the turn of the century, Windows Mobile supported Shift/Ctrl selections before it was scrapped for a less-robust Windows Phone 7 operating system.)
One of the reasons people started using instant messenger programs like Blackberry Messenger or iMessage was the fact that the centralized server could communicate the read/unread status of each message to the message sender. Email is capable of doing that, too. If you really want to know if someone has received and opened your email, before you send it, you can turn on the received & read receipt options. The recipient’s email server will then let you know when those things happened (unless the recipient turns off that feature or their email server/client doesn’t support it). Mobile email clients don’t usually support both requesting receipts or sending them and that basically breaks an important function of email.
Appointments & Meeting Requests
One of the things that people need to do pretty frequently is set up appointments with each other. Outlook and Exchange call these “meeting requests”. In Outlook, I can add “attendees” that I want to invite to a meeting or event. If any of the attendees are within the same Active Directory domain as I am, then I can actually see what parts of their schedules are marked as available in their calendars. I can even access the availability of conference rooms within the organization in order to see which rooms and times I can schedule a meeting for. Recipients in Outlook can accept the appointment as tentative, attending, or not attending, but they can also propose an alternate time. None of those extra meeting scheduling features are really available on smartphones. Usually they only support the basic add-attendee capability.
I can send meeting requests to anyone, but their ability to accept them or even see their details depends on what email client they’re using as well as what email client I’m using. For example, in the Gmail app on Android, Meeting Requests sent from Windows Phone show up as blank emails, but in Gmail in a web browser on your desktop, they show up with nice “Yes, Maybe, No” buttons that will add the event to your calendar accordingly. If they’re sent from Gmail on the Desktop, then Gmail on the phone recognizes them too. Sometimes meeting request response messages show up and sometimes they don’t. Even Microsoft’s web-based free Outlook.com email service doesn’t recognize its own meeting request emails. The web interface returns an error when you recieve them. It’s a whole confusing mess that I wish everyone could standardize on and make it so meeting requests just work.
On your desktop, you can attach absolutely any type of file to an email. Sure, you might be limited by the file size depending on what your email server allows, but generally there are not many limitations. You can also save any type of file that was attached to an email you received and open it in any type of program that you want. Some of you may remember the early days of email where we could only send text based messages and attachments had to be encoded in ASCII to be sent (remember uuencoding?) Of course, it’s possible to impose limitations. In Exchange, you can create mail flow rules that disallow attaching files that contain sensitive company information and personal information like credit card numbers or SS ID numbers.
On your smartphone, you’re often severely limited in how you can deal with attachments. In many cases, the attachment button only lets you choose images on your phone! Sometimes you can share other attachment types by going to an app associated with the content and finding the “share” button. That’s kind of the opposite of what people are normally used to and it’s a major pain if you want to attach more than one different type of file to a single email. Gmail on Android brings up a lot of attachment options, but adding an attachment to an email often breaks Gmail’s conversation threading.
A Real Keyboard
In a quick survey of some colleagues where I asked for some of the main reasons why they would still use a desktop PC for email as opposed to a mobile device like a smartphone, one of the big answers was because their desktop has a real keyboard attached to it. Despite all of the advances in touch-screen input methods, a full-sized hardware keyboard that you can use with all 10 fingers is still the most efficient method of typing for most people.
This isn’t really something you can solve on a pocket-sized smartphone. Although between 2003-2010, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile supported Bluetooth hardware keyboard accessories. Android and iOS added support for those as well, and with Windows 10, Microsoft is set to bring that capability back.
Not everybody uses email in the same way. Not everybody knows how capable email is for digital communications either. Whether mobile software developers are intentionally keeping email from being an efficient and powerful mobile communications platform or they’re just being lazy remains to be seen. Although, I suppose if they don’t step things up, we’ll always need a good desktop computer to get things done efficiently.
Do you still prefer to use email on your desktop? Or do you use it a lot on your smartphone? Or do you try to avoid using email completely?