This is not my first attempt at using IMAP for email management: there was an earlier project using Archiveopteryx for storing email in an SQL database, with a Thunderbird interface to it. That project didn’t get far because one of the components involved (but which?) would behave strangely if too many messages were loaded at once. This time I think I can take the risk with it because Gmail will continue to look after all my messages, and I won’t be meddling with how they are stored in Thunderbird (or at least, I have yet to formulate any serious plans for meddling).
I’ve reduced the size of my Gmail footprint, down to 200 MB. This entailed unsubscribing from a couple of mailing lists (from which I had almost 1000 unread emails :-/) and deleting their archives (almost 10000 emails — how much time did I spent keeping up with that?). Reading them offline in Thunderbird was more convenient than using a typical mailing list web interface but there is a cost to keeping too much old mail (bandwidth, storage, search efficiency, backup, etc.) . I’m now using about 3% of my account’s capacity. This ratio will possibly diminish further as the continual Gmail growth outpaces my accumulation of mail.
Gmail was the saviour of much of what survived the recent catastrophe of my data storage (and general belongings). Fortuitously I was playing with another mail project just weeks prior to it, part of which involved uploading my older mail into Gmail. Only a fraction of it was transferred but I’ve been able to salvage projects from old mail to people (which I’ll describe when I resurrect them properly).
Although I managed to survive several months in the wilderness of web-only mail, I’m glad that can return at last to the civilised realm of a venerable piece of software like Thunderbird. It’s hard to understand the neglect it gets from Mozilla, and the failure of other mail interfaces to provide the same functionality. Perhaps it is because the features are tried and tested and old. Gmail has great usability (for simple cases), but there are two particular features I miss from it:
- Proper e-mail quoting. Gmail defaults to top-posting. You need a monkey patching script to support bottom-posting.
- Hierarchical message threading. Like most modern mail UIs, Gmail supports “conversations” (i.e. threads — but without hierarchy).
(Earlier today, a work colleague ingenuously suggested that we upgrade to Outlook 2010 because it supports conversations properly. I do not know if that means hierarchical ones.)
Both of these properties make it immensely easier to follow large mail conversations. In the first case, a certain effort is required from senders to copy only the part of the text they are replying to. But it is the most basic, utilitarian tenet of etiquette: if more time will be saved reading your mail than you will put into editing it, then there is no excuse not to put those few moments of effort in.
I am shocked (and, at the same time, dismally unsurprised) that workplaces, in particular, are blind to this kind of standard. It is common to have to read — backwards — a long email trail. The experience is exacerbated when a poster tries to emulate proper quoting by inserting some of their replies down inside the quoted text (in a different colour, if we are lucky). I don’t know who is responsible for promulgating top-posting as the default way to reply to email. But realistically, this war is lost. We have had a decade of widespread email misuse to cement the habit as a standard. It is only in a few project mailing lists that replies are held to a considerate standard. (Those projects tend also to be efficient and professional in other respects, despite being composed largely of loosely-organised volunteers.)