The Thinker

The virtues of an email client with GMail

There is plenty of upheaval in my office. We are completing a painful (and I do mean painful) transition moving from one email system to another. In this case, we are moving from Lotus Notes to Google Mail. Lotus Notes meant lots of expensive email servers inside our firewall closely watched over by a crew of technicians who, like grease monkeys, spent their days (and nights) constantly oiling Lotus’s gears. GMail of course is “in the cloud”. A Google enterprise team manages it for us. It’s all sort of magic and at least so far seems to mostly work.

Switching email systems in a large enterprise of 70,000 people is quite a trick. It is roughly like switching out your car’s engine while driving down the street. It can be done. Essentially you have to have two email engines running at the same time processing the same incoming email. Eventually all the email accounts are successfully migrated from one email system to the other and you pull the plug on the old email system. But of course there are thousands of gotchas. You also have to migrate calendars, contacts and to dos. All sorts of applications and systems are tied into the email system. Each of these individually has to be taught to use the new email system. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is hard.

Now that our office is all GMail all the time the office has ditched the dependable email client in favor of using GMail inside the Chrome browser. I like GMail at home and on the road and use it all the time. However, the experience of using GMail on the web casually versus using it all the time is quite a bit different. When sixty percent of your day is spent reading and replying to email, productivity is important. While GMail has lots of nifty features (like its swift search engine to find emails) it also has some significant drawbacks. Specifically you have all the limitations and annoyances of working in a browser. GMail does its best to minimize these drawbacks, but when you are reading and replying to hundreds of emails a day and using a browser for an email client the experience becomes very irritating.

Take, for example, simply navigating between emails. Typically you want to just go to the next or last email. When using a browser and a desktop computer, you must use a mouse. This means you have to reach for the mouse, point to the email you want to read and then click on it. It takes three actions to do something that previously required simply pressing your up and down arrow keys. You don’t notice this at home, but at work I find it is more than irritating. It makes reading and replying to email an annoying hassle.

We don’t have a lot of options. Our service desk supports Microsoft Outlook as an option if you whine about wanting an email client, but as Outlook users know it really prefers that you are using Microsoft Exchange on the backend. Plus it’s a Microsoft product, which means it will have the usual mixture of brilliant, quirky and downright annoying features. Most importantly, it has feature bloat. Ninety percent of the time you need to either delete or quickly file an email. The other ten percent of the time you just need to reply or forward it. You probably don’t need to turn your email client into a newsreader, or to have it transparently integrate multiple email accounts or create multiple personalities. You just want to get through the couple of hundred emails in your email box as efficiently and as quickly as possible, with minimal fuss and keystrokes.

In short, you need Mozilla Thunderbird. The open source email client is not dead, and thankfully Mozilla Thunderbird keeps refining its product, in spite of the fact that its big brother browser (Firefox) gets almost all of the attention. Arguably if you really feel you need an email client with GMail, you should ditch all of the other ones and just standardize on Thunderbird. This is because it works across all the operating systems pretty much identically and it is elegantly simple. And should you feel the need to dress it up with themes or add-ons, it’s easy enough to do. Outlook users can even install a theme that sort of makes it look like Outlook.

It’s possible to use Thunderbird with GMail but it is not intuitive. After installing it, you need to go into your web-based GMail and select “Generate Application Password” (click on the More link near the top). It will create a long string of impossible to guess characters, numbers and symbols and you have to use to authenticate Thunderbird with GMail’s mail servers. Then in Thunderbird you have to find its account settings (Tools > Account Settings) and know the names of Google’s email servers (smtp.google.com for outgoing email and imap.google.com for incoming email). When asked for a password, use the applications password. You may need to tell it to use port 993 and SSL/TSL for connection security. You probably want IMAP instead of POP (Post Office Protocol) because IMAP allows you to keep your email in the cloud, instead of moving it to your computer. This is generally preferred since you never can lose it this way. It’s worth the hassle to make Thunderbird and GMail talk to each other because you sure will get sick of using GMail through a browser if you have to do most of your business day.

Certainly there are some features of the web-based GMail that are occasionally desirable. You can assign multiple tags to more than one email rather than just throw it into a folder. You can do sophisticated searching using a host of qualifiers. The nice thing is that the one percent of the time you might need these features, you can just bring up GMail and peck away. Most of the time you will prefer the speed and efficiency of Mozilla Thunderbird.

Curiously, Thunderbird excels as a purely email client. Maintaining a calendar is very much a part time activity, and GMail’s calendar is slick, easy to use and attractive. You can install an add-on to Thunderbird that will integrate a calendar, but it is relatively ugly. Google Calendar allows you to easily see other’s calendars, once they give you access to their calendar, and you can even see calendars outside of your office network. So if I need my calendar, I go into my browser.

GMail comes with Google Talk for instant messaging. Instant messaging is almost as important as email in the enterprise. With the right program placed in your task bar, you can be notified of instant messages even if you are not focused in your browser. Or you may prefer to install an instant messenger that works with Google Talk. If so make sure you keep that application password because you will need it. Warning: if you generate a new application password, you will need to replace the passwords in other applications you may have connected to Google’s infrastructure. Currently I am using Pidgin, which works well. However you really need to select the XMPP protocol instead of Google Talk protocol. Connect to talk.google.com and use port 5222. Also make sure encryption is enabled.

Perhaps one of these days Google will get GMail browser to work more simply and speedily. Right now they seemed more enamored with adding features you are unlikely to use, like conversation view, than in making it more keyboard friendly. In addition, all the logic is executed through Javascript, which is relatively slow. You notice the time it takes to read an email once you select it. This is less noticeable in an email client. Once you see how comfortable it is to use Thunderbird with GMail, you will likely see no reason to use browser-based GMail at all if you have the option.

 

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