Desktop Email Clients Are Not Necessarily A Dying Breed

Almost three years ago I wrote an article about desktop email clients being a dying breed of applications, no thanks in part to the proliferation of web-based email use, but also due to the lack of innovation. Essentially, my argument back then was this: there is no truly compelling reason to use a desktop email client over a web-based one.

Does this still remain true today? Not necessarily.

Although web-based email continues to be the primary mechanism for the average user to manage their email, there have been some minor advancements in the desktop email client space which may pique some users’ interests. The question remains: are desktop email clients on their way out the door?

I said the following in reference to the one feature where desktop email clients excel over their web-based counterparts:

One of the most prized features of desktop email clients is the ability to read email while offline – something not currently possible in most web-based emails services not bearing Gmail in their name. The only other potentially killer desktop email client feature to consider is the ability to tie multiple email accounts in to a single, unified inbox or potential client integration with specific desktop applications in order to extend client functionality. Outside of those features there just is nothing else sexy about desktop email clients.

This still remains true today. Although web-based email continues to gain rich functionality – just look at Gmail or Yahoo! Mail today compared to three years ago – it still lags behind in these features. The two most widely used features of desktop clients, offline reading and inbox unification, are not yet available in web-based versions. If these features are a necessity, desktop email clients are where its at.

One desktop email client scene newcomer is Sparrow for OS X. It not only revolutionized the interface by mimicking the look and feel of Tweetie, but also extended functionality by offering features not seen in traditional clients.

Sparrow integrates with Facebook to display sender profile pictures. This makes it easier to identify senders at-a-glance. In addition to the traditional attachment method, Sparrow also integrates with either DropBox or CloudApp for file sharing with email recipients. Rather than sending large attachments clogging email inbox size limitations, share links to the files instead. Much cleaner and less wasteful.

Thunderbird and Postbox remain viable desktop email clients, although they have yet to offer any truly innovating, and compelling reason for abandoning web-based email outside of multiple account support and a unified inbox. Postbox seems to be ahead of the power curve here, offering some interesting social connectivity, such as integration with LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately, the interface is a bit clunky and retains a lot of the problems seen with Thunderbird. This is where Sparrow blows both away: the interface is simple, to the point, and easily understandable.

One final feature I have not yet mentioned, which is generally a desktop-only feature, is email security, or the ability to use encryption and digital signatures. Although web-based email can use PGP, it is not fully integrated into the client for a seamless experience. Thunderbird and Postbox excel in this area, offering the most unified interface for cohesive email security.

The following still applies from my original essay on this topic:

Unfortunately, for the average user, especially the mobile user, web-based email is a much better solution than being tied to a desktop email client. In a corporate environment, with the requirement to do calendaring, appointments, tasks and whatnot, desktop email will always win.

But even though applications like Thunderbird are capable of accessing server-side email through IMAP, people are so entrenched in web-based email these days it will be nearly impossible to pry it from their hands unless a truly revolutionary desktop email product hits the scene.

Sparrow may very well be that truly revolutionary desktop email product. It certainly fulfills my needs far better than any web-based or desktop email client on the market today. The unified inbox and unique interface are the two features I get adore the most.

So where does that leave me now in comparison to how I felt three short years ago?

As far as I am concerned I find web-based email, Gmail in particular, far more worthwhile than their desktop-based cousins. If you are looking to access web-based email from a desktop client then maybe something like Mailplane is right up your alley. Otherwise, desktop email clients are a dying breed and will be soon following the same path those crusty old dinosaurs took – extinction.

It is safe to say I was completely wrong – desktop email clients will not be disappearing anytime soon. As long we continue to see these clients push the innovation envelope they will continue to thrive. For now, I remain a Sparrow proponent more than a desktop email client advocate. As long as Sparrow is at the bleeding edge it will continue to be my primary means of managing email, at least until a start-up comes along and mimics these features in a web-based application.