Email is Cool Again

Well, I've been saying this for a while now, so it's good to see it finally catch on in the mainstream media. No, email is not broken, it was never broken. But now email seems to be cool again.

This week Gruber linked to this Atlantic article singing the praises of email. And today I came across another article on Tech Crunch about email newsletters that also places email in high regard:

"But beyond all that, it feels like an admission that the Internet went horribly wrong somewhere along the way. Google+, Tumblr and Facebook Groups felt like a tacit admission that the web had taken a wrong turn somewhere around Friendster and was finding its way back to LiveJournal."

I kind of love this article, especially this last sentiment, because it's how I've been feeling lately about the Internet in general and social media in particular. Like it's all just gone too far and crossed over from being an insanely useful tool to being a silly, pointless distraction. 

I think I'm ready for Web 3.0.

In the meantime, there's email. Good old, rock steady, mine-all-mine email. Which just keeps getting better.

Robot Names

Why are robot names, by and large, so bad? It seems like it wouldn't be that hard to come up with some cool ones, or at least some not awful ones. Instead we get names that are downright embarrassing to say out loud. They sound pseudo-futuristic and ridiculous, or like something out of a bad fantasy novel. Here are some examples.

Horrible Robot Names

256px-HAL9000.svg.png

There have been, to my memory, only two decent, usable robot names.

Cool Robot Names

  • Computer (the  LCARS system from Star Trek, but they always just called it "Computer")
  • HAL

Seriously, those last two are the only ones I wouldn't feel idiotic addressing directly, with words issuing forth from my mouth, in a public setting. The rest? Feh! "Okay, Glass?" Really?

If we're to start using voice activated assistants and robots in our daily lives, I think we need to do a better job of making the process more natural and less awkward. You'd think the naming of the thing would be the first and easiest place to start. Apparently not.


Ditching Gmail for Fastmail

This has been a long time coming, but I'm finally trying the 60-day free trial of Fastmail. And so far, I'm loving it.

Screenshot 2014-07-12 12.24.20.png

To be clear, I'm not completely ditching Gmail; I'm taking a graduated approach. So I still have all my Gmail addresses, and they're still doing all their spam filtering and what-not. But all my Gmail is now getting forwarded to Fastmail. I'm also using, for the first time ever, my own domains via Fastmail, which is awesome and one of my primary motivations for switching. So eventually Gmail will get phased out in favor of my personalized domains names.

Screenshot 2014-07-12 13.36.21.png

Some of the great things Fastmail offers:

  • A terrific browser-based interface
    I prefer managing email in the browser rather than using a local email client, and Fastmail's web interface on my Mac and in iOS is actually better than Gmail's for my needs. One of my favorite features is the lack of paging. Fastmail has infinite scrolling of your email, so you don't have to keep hitting a "back" button to see your email history.
  • Speed
    Fastmail's web interface is also super fast and responsive. I never realized how slow Gmail's interface actually was until I used Fastmail. 
  • Control
    Fastmail offers tons of features — like forwarding, aliases, personalities, and of course virtual domains — that let me set up my mail just the way I want it to work.
  • Import
    Fastmail will import your Gmail into a standard folder hierarchy in your Fastmail account. Very useful for switchers like me.
  • Export
    Fastmail lets you download any email folder to a .ZIP archive on your computer. The contents of this archive are EML files, which are basically text files that can be read by any email application, or by plain text readers. Very handy! 
  • Mass Email Management
    You can also mass delete whole email folders and search, flag and delete duplicates.
  • An "Unread" view
    View only your unread messages — shockingly not offered in Gmail.
  • Excellent Search
    Fastmail's search, so far, has even proven superior to Gmail's, surprisingly. There are tons of operators, and searches are fast and savable. Yes, savable searches! Since Fastmail lacks Gmail's labels, I'm using searches instead. And so far I think it's preferable. I now rely less on organization through labels, which I never really used to find things anyway, and simply save searches of my flat archive. Simple and super flexible to boot! This is email organization after the fact, and I think it's a great way to do it.
  • IMAP
    It may seem unimportant, but Fastmail uses vanilla IMAP, and this offers some big advantages over Gmail's weirdo IMAP implementation. The main one, for me, is that when iOS's Mail app is set up using IMAP, I can set it to send mail using any "from" address I specify. You can do that in Gmail's browser, and in Gmail's hideous iOS client, but not in Mail that's been set up for Gmail. This is kind of a big deal for me.
  • Calendar
    Fastmail's calendar is great as well, and also features the same infinite scrolling you find in the email view. It also uses CalDAV for sharing, and, of course, can import all my shared Google Calendars. And the inline event editing is maybe the best I've seen — on a browser or on the desktop.
Really Nice Inline Calendar Event Editing! 

Really Nice Inline Calendar Event Editing! 

So what's missing from Fastmail? Not much! There are really only two things, and one is purported to be coming soon:

  • CardDAV
    Fastmail currently lacks CardDAV, which is, in my estimation, the best way for sharing your contacts among your various devices and services. But according to the Fastmail team, it's in the works. Once that's available, I'll almost certainly switch over completely to Fastmail.
  • Undo Send
    This has become my number one favorite Gmail feature. I don't know why this feature is not ubiquitous, because it's awesome, and seems like it would be fairly easy to implement. Alas, it does not exist in Fastmail, and I don't know that it ever will.

I should mention, too, that with Fastmail you're a paying customer, and I've heard very good things about their support. Support for Gmail, beyond online help pages, is non-existent as far as I know. And as a paying customer, you have the ear of the company and can request features. So who knows? Maybe some day we'll get Undo Send after all.

In any case, so far, with Fastmail I'm able to finally set up email on all my devices — Mac, iPhone, iPad — just the way I like it. It's really nice. If you've been thinking about switching from Gmail to something else, Fastmail is definitely worth checking out. After less than a week's use, I'm pretty confident I'll be signing up as a paid customer when my trial ends. It's really that good.

Yosemite and iOS 8 are Service Killers

Here are the various apps and services that I use that the latest Apple OS releases could replace:

There are probably more, but these were the ones that struck me immediately. It seems clear: With Yosemite and iOS 8 Apple is going after services in a big way.

Mail
Apple’s Mail is a perfectly good program, but I’ve always preferred the low-load, low-friction of Google’s Gmail in the browser. I also love the ways in which Gmail saves my ass. That said, I’m always teetering on the precipice of ditching Gmail — it just makes me uncomfortable how much information they have about me, and the fact that I have no idea what they do with it, and that I am not considered their customer. Google serves the interests of its advertisers first and foremost. It skeeves me out a lot.

For me, a lot would have to change with email to make me switch from Gmail. I’d love it if there were a server-side only option, for one. I’d also love it if Mail in iOS supported email aliases. Performance would have to get a lot better too. Still, with Cloud Storage integration, we’re one step closer to a Gmail killer. It will be interesting to see just how hard Apple is willing to fight for our email. 

Photos
I’ve also been using Google+ for photo storage and management, as a less than ideal solution. The app and service are almost completely unintegrated into iOS (except for auto-sync). The Google+ app for iOS is not great, and really not geared towards photo management, but Google+ has some nice search tricks (of course!), some nice processing tricks, and it’s free. Still, this is another service I’d ditch if something better came along. ‘Cause: Google.

For integrated photo management — like when I need to get photos from my iOS device to my Mac, or get images into my iPad’s Procreate app — I use Dropbox. Yep. I actually use two apps for image management because Apple’s image management implementation has been so piss poor.

iCloud Photo Library seems to be just the answer to my image woes. It’s fully integrated into iOS and, in time, will be with the Mac as well (hooray!). And it will be very affordable and will, presumably, just work.

Storage
I love Dropbox and have been very happy with it overall. It’s main virtues are that it’s wonderfully reliable, and it has deep hooks into the iOS ecosystem. For image management, particularly when I’m working on comics, it’s the best. But it’s expensive, and their recent policy changes have left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Enter: iCloud Drive. This is basically a Dropbox killer that offers twice the storage at under half the price. And it should be fully integrated with iOS and all its apps pretty much out of the box. If it’s reliable, it will be a no-brainer.

Location
Foursquare is a thing I’ve never really used, but I like the idea of being able to find out where someone I want to meet up with is currently located. Not sure I want or need a third-party app and service for this, and, as with Google, I question how this info will be used by an online service.

Apple is essentially integrating this idea into Messages, which I think is the perfect way to go. It’s integrated, person-specific and event specific. Messages is just the right context for location sharing. I will probably use the hell out of this feature. 

Search
Google’s search doesn’t really present a problem for me. But having to fire up a browser to access it is a minor impediment nonetheless.

Using Spotlight to accomplish the lion’s share of my search needs is an appealing prospect (though if I’m stuck with Bing I may not be sold). Again, Spotlight’s already integrated into my OS, so no trip to the browser is required. I like the idea of searching the web in the same manner and place I search my hard drive. I like the idea, though I wonder if I’ll like the practice. Time will tell.

Conclusion
With Yosemite and iOS 8 Apple is finally really attacking services in a big way. And, I think, in a smart way. Apple offers two things the third-parties can’t: integration and better privacy. Remember, Apple’s business model is built on making devices, apps and now services that make you, the end-user, happy, not on collecting and selling your information. 

The new features in Apple’s latest releases address some major pain points that have, thus far, been tackled by third-parties in often less than satisfying ways. With Apple handling cloud storage and photo management themselves, these services have a good chance at delivering a much better overall experience than the solutions I’ve found. I’m hoping they turn out well.

One More Reason to Use Google+ for Photo Backups

I've been using Google+ for free automatic backups of my iPhone photos. It's not perfect, but if you can live with its limitations — the main one being that photo size for a free plan is limited to 2048x2048px — then it's pretty amazing. Seamless, unlimited and free is just what the doctor ordered for me personally since, honestly, most of the photos I take I don't really look at ever again.

Today there's one more reason to use Google+ for photo backups, at least if you use Gmail, which I certainly do. Starting today you can insert photos directly from your Google+ backup into emails composed with the Gmail web browser client. It works great, and it's definitely one of those things I'd been thinking, "Why can't I do this?" about. Well, now I can, and I'm pretty pleased about it.

They say that Google is rolling the feature out gradually throughout the day, so it may not appear instantly for everyone. For me, I was able to get access to it by simply reloading my Gmail page.