A Feature Request for Apple Mail

by Jochen Wolters

Back in June, Giles Turnbull asked what new features Mac users would like to see implemented in an email client. Some of the favorites were improved threading, message tags, seamless encryption, more stable IMAP support, and notifications via Growl. Apple's ideas for enhancing Mail are a bit different, though: the three new features that Steve Jobs demoed during last week's WWDC keynote are stationary, notes, and to-do lists. Let's ignore the question of whether the stationary/templates approach will work as well for email messages as it does for documents created in iLife or iWork, because the other two features are much more important.

For a lot of us, our email client is the main communication hub of our daily life. Not only do we use it for exchanging information we need for getting our ongoing tasks done; it's also via email that we get requests for new tasks and send out tasks for delegation. While it does make sense to have some kind of access to task management features right inside the email client, there's also iCal to manage tasks and events, and redundant features across several applications are usually not a good idea.

Apple has found an elegant solution for this problem: Leopard will feature a system-wide to-do service. Just like any application can already access the contact information stored in Address Book (think email addresses from within Mail, or buddies from within iChat), to-do items will also be accessible to any application. That's good news for data integrity (and, thus, for user sanity), and it will provide third-party developers with an opportunity to transparently tie their own task management software into this system.

The addition of to-do's and notes to Mail may indicate that Apple has some useful ideas for enhancing a "non-glamourous" application like Mail beyond just beautiful eye candy. It would be great if they would move further along this path by adding real workflows to Mail.

There's a Serious Overhead to Manually Processing Email

Regardless of the specific methodology you use to manage your tasks, you most definitely have put some processes in place for handling your emails. Sometimes, you just need to send a quick reply to an email and discard both the incoming message and your response after sending out the latter. Wouldn't buttons for "Reply and Delete Incoming Message" or "Send and Delete" be handy in these situations?

Here's a more complex example: imagine you have sent out a request for some piece of information. You move the sent message to your "Wait On" folder, and when the reply comes in, you may send another reply to this incoming message, then move that message to the "Wait On" folder, and transfer both your original request and the reply you received to your Archive folder. That's a lot of mouse moves and clicks... Just think of how much time and effort you could save if a single click -- say, on a "Respond and Archive Thread" button -- would take care of all these steps!

Part of this functionality is already available via Rules, AppleScript, Automator, and third-party plug-ins like Scott Morrison's superb Mail Act-On, but there are some shortcomings: except for incoming messages, Rules cannot be triggered automatically; AppleScript is too difficult to use for average Mac users who have no programming experience; as of now, Automator has far too few Mail-related actions to be seriously useful; and the UIs of some plug-ins feel like bolt-ons, not like seamless, "natural" extensions (which criticism definitely does not apply to Mail Act-On, mind you!).

Automator + Mail = Effective Email Workflows? Hopefully soon!

Nevertheless, AppleScript and Automator already provide a great foundation to build "serious" Mail workflows on. What I hope Apple will do, then, is, first, build (many) more Mail-related Automator actions, including very basic functionality like moving messages to a mailbox folder, or replying to a message; and, second, use some of their UI design voodoo to come up with an elegant and effective way of triggering these workflows within Mail. In that sense, I'd love to see the equivalent to the Finder's Folder Actions for every mailbox in Mail, multiple varieties for core functionality like "Reply" (see the above examples), message threading across mailboxes, automatic filing of messages based on those threads, etc.

Compare any email clients available today, and their overall feature sets are pretty much the same: all of them have mature implementations of address books, rules, archive message folders, support for multi-media files, etc. Adding workflows which average users could create and edit, and which would advance automated email handling in ways that makes even die-hard productivity geeks smile, could make Apple Mail stand out from the crowd for more than just its good-looking UI.

If Mail offered extensive workflows, which of your email management processes would you like to automate? Or would you consider other features more important and/or innovative, instead?


2006-08-14 08:05:49
Actually the feature I would most like to see is folders that build rules for themselves. Why can't you create a folder, and drop some email into it and have it write the rule for you that transfers future inbox messages into that folder? Bayesian filters can automatically do this with junk mail. Why not apply the idea to all my mail that isn't junk? I tried to tell this to Apple engineers at a WWDC a few years back and was essentially ignored.

Regarding mail plugins I can tell you that what is really needed is API support from Apple. Current plugins are basically implemented as hacks. Mail will load a bundle, but beyond that the plugins "swizzle" the Mail.app code which is a nice way to say that they patch method selectors at runtime.

You are right in suggesting that there should be other ways to activate rules besides incoming mail. Periodic activation, folder watching, etc. would all be nice. In fact, maybe mail rules should BE AppleScripts, and clearly more Automater support is needed.

The UI stuff is neat, and makes for a better demo. Let's hope that there is more stuff "under the hood" that we haven't seen yet.

Professor Nerdlinger
2006-08-14 08:44:06
The best feature Apple could implement in a Mail.app update is some robustness. Let's get rid of the spinning beachball, and reduce Mail's choking on large attachments BEFORE we start fiddling with rules and Automator and whatnot. Beef up the database, add some speed and some muscle. When they get it running smoothly, then would be an appropriate time to start playing with extra features.
Adam Rice
2006-08-14 09:14:21
Gosh, where to start?

I'd like self-deleting messages. I frequently get notification-type e-mail that I might want to keep around for a week, but will want to discard after that. If I could flag a message as self-deleting after a certain period of time, that'd be handy.

I have different workflows for different kinds of tasks. It's hard to imagine Apple adding this level of geekery to mail, but I can imagine user-defined workflows, and rules to put a message onto this workflow or that. A series of buttons would appear along the top of the message to show and control the message's progress through the flow. Actually, there would need to be a way to bundle together multiple messages into one task--that's probably the proper unit of management. But at this point, you're really moving away from a mail client per se and more into a project-management tool. A separate app with tight mail integration would be better than doing it inside mail.

Jochen Wolters
2006-08-14 09:36:40

The idea of self-learning folders sound very interesting! And it should even be technically feasible as long as the user selects/limits which headers, or parts of the actual message, Mail should analyze for this.

An official and well-documented API for Mail plug-ins is absolutely key to letting third-party developers properly implement their add-ons for the application. I have no idea why Apple is apparently letting some companies in on their "Mail extension API secrets" like they did with the PGP guys, instead of simply publishing the whole API for everyone who feels like adding to Mail.app's features.

Jochen Wolters
2006-08-14 09:40:06

User-defined workflows are exactly what I would like to see in Mail. Implementing the self-deleting messages would be a piece-a-cake with such workflows: create a workflow that deletes messages whose age is older than x, and run that workflow on a regular basis. Done!

See, flexible tools like Automator are great for enabling average users to come up with cool solutions to problems that a number of users are tackling. Not requiring any code-hacking developer skills would make it even more exciting to see what people would come up with.

Gerd Castan
2006-08-14 09:59:49

For some reasons I am required to use SMTP-AUTH to send my mails. Thunderbird (previously Mozilla) supports this for years. Apples Mail doesn't support SMTP-AUTH.

So the most important and simple feature I need to use Apples Mail is to send mails.


Greg Honig
2006-08-14 10:11:20

SMTP-AUTH is supported within Mail. I've been using it for years. I don't have a Mac in front of me, but I believe that if you edit your email account and hit the Advanced button you can enable this.

BTW.. it also supports SSL/TLS.

Gerd Castan
2006-08-14 11:34:20

I confirm it works now :-) I had difficulties for long time.


Greg Parker
2006-08-15 00:19:03
TaskAnyone is the best alternative to email that I have seen in the market. It is really email with accountability. It allows you to send tasks to anyone with an email and the system automatically tracks every action on that task. Also the alert features sends an email when someone views, accepts, rejects, re-assigns, or deletes a task. They have a free full trial at www.taskanyone.com
Jochen Wolters
2006-08-15 08:24:49

Judging from their website, TaskAnyone is a web service. By requiring users to access this website via a browser and receiving tasks via email, that's the kind of non seamless "integration" between tasks and emails that I hope the system-wide to-do service in Leopard will help eliminate. Now, if there was an iSync (or iCal) plug-in for TaskAnyone...

2006-08-16 00:39:47

You said:

I have no idea why Apple is apparently letting some companies in on their "Mail extension API secrets" like they did with the PGP guys, instead of simply publishing the whole API for everyone who feels like adding to Mail.app's features.

While I can't say what kind of help Apple provided to the PGP guys, I can tell you that there really isn't a secret API that Apple gave only to them. Actually you can get the source to the PGP plugin (at least you could when I last checked) and look at it. It is both educational, and will give you a headache.

No the problem is that there is no API. And I suppose at this point Apple engineers don't want to be too quick to break the existing plugins. Anyone who has written a mail plugin should be aware they are skating on thin ice, but of course it still hurts to have something break because of an update.

Jochen Wolters
2006-08-16 02:16:28

Judging from the pretty tight integration, I concluded (incorrectly, it seems) that the PGP coders knew something about Mail "plug-ins" that others don't. Thanks, rufferto, for clearing this up!

2006-08-16 08:15:34
What I'd like to see is a real system for archiving in Mail. Sure, I can manually dump things into a separate folder when they get old, but that is not the same thing. I have about 9 years of old mail saved. I occasionally want to use the search feature to find something that old, but most of the time I do not want my searches bogged down by doing so. I would like it if e-mail over a certain age would no longer be part of the main search index, and for that to be something I turn on or off with a check box. This should apply to both the search panel, to Spotlight, and to smart folders. Or perhaps it could be decided on an ad hoc basis, so that individual smart folders and searches could be age limited (and not just on AND searches, but also on OR searches).
2006-08-16 08:20:23
Our company uses an Exchange server that I access via IMAP. The problem is that it has a public folder with hundreds of folders within it. Most of the folders I do not have read access to, but they still show up (empty, except for subfolders, also empty). Mail still dutifully checks these for new mail, and searches them when I perform a search. And the ones I do have access to have thousands of unread messages in them that I just don't care about. So I wish Mail had a way for me to selectively hide and ignore many of those folders. Currently, I kind of do this by setting read-only permissions in the Finder for those folders, but this is clunky, kludgy, and doesn't really work that well.
Adam Rice
2006-08-17 10:06:44
Kemper--you can approximate archiving in mail by setting up "archive" folders and limiting your searches to "current" folders (or "archive" folders, as appropriate).
2006-08-17 11:07:08
Yes, but I currently have 35 smart folders and probably about 50 regular folders in Mail. What I would really want would be to have an archive that maintains the same folder structure as the original, but would stay independent of the original without having to edit every smart folder and every search. Something like how in iTunes when you do a search you can choose to search everything or your Main Library, or Audio Books, or Podcasts, etc. These are buttons underneath the search field in iTubes, but I would prefer they were always available in the same place for smart playlists (or something similar for archives or not for smart folders in Mail).
2006-10-19 14:58:55
Apple Mail + MailTags + MailActOn + Rules + SmartFolders + AppleScript.
to achieve somethign that should be "out of the box"
Gavin Brauer
2007-02-08 06:18:17
Some features of MS Outlook I miss on my Mac
1. Ability to automatically drag and drop an e-mail to a task or event
2. Start and end dates for tasks
Frank Rogers
2007-05-10 07:48:51
Absolutely agree with the statements with regard to the added actions require in mail workflow.
I have to read/filter then forward . I desperately need to have additional actions to give me back my life


John Ferguson
2007-06-10 12:46:32
A few productivity features like the ones requested mght be nice, but I don't get any more than a few emails per day at home. For me the coolest thing would be to be able to turn off gif animation and only animate when explicitly requested. No harm to my aged american relatives, but their emails are full of animated gifs and one of Opera's best features is that you can turn off gif animation.
Chris Conroy
2007-09-18 08:57:55
For me, I'd like some more basis. Better formatting when making emails (bullet lists, indenting, etc.). I don't want to have to create an email in textedit and then send it to mail.

Also the ability to send a message to a folder after it's been sent would be helpful

James T. KirkĀ©
2008-01-02 23:38:00
Switching from Thunderbird to Apple Mail using Leopard, a few things really annoy me. T'bird gave me the choice to reply under the quote as I think (and many with me) is the proper way, or replying in the Windows Outlook (Express) way, above the quote. (Which is think makes mail communication very ridiculous, because, who in the Western world starts reading a thread from the bottom up?)
Furthermore I miss my T'bird smileys and extensions. A good thing in Mail is, one can select a piece of the email to use as quote in the reply. T'bird is unable to do that. Furthermore one can make nice HTML mails for special events, though the set of possibilities is not very large...
Jochen Wolters
2008-01-03 02:36:48

the choice to reply under the quote as I think (and many with me) is the proper way

That is, indeed, one (IMHO minor) shortcoming in Mail. (I do agree that this is the proper way™, as you can see from this very reply ;) ).

I miss my T'bird smileys and extensions

Although Mail.app does not have an officially documented plug-in API, you can find tons of extensions and related AppleScripts on the Plug-ins list at Hawk Wings, which site I regard as the most useful Web site about all things Apple Mail. Since you've recently switched to Apple Mail, have a look at Hawk Wings to learn what that application is capable of.

2008-07-02 11:47:55
hi iam a apple fan but as it is so cost i have not use but i like to use use apple iphone if you can faour plz sent me a iphone of apple. dont think any thing sent for free or 25% of money
iwould like to use it so plz take it in good manner as welll as plz take it serious you you like to sent sent email to my mail
i have no money to it iam useing nokia 6610inow that mobile is just 50dh in dubai so plz sent a ihone to me.