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?