How (and why) Email could become your favorite messaging system

by Emma


I know what you’re saying, “Why would I even want to do that?”  Email is a very old protocol…  Yes, but look how terrible all of the other messaging apps we have now are, too. Maybe you get tons of email spam and there’s too much noise to even deal with it.  Yes, yes, I know… but imagine 6 or 12 times that much split across a dozen different apps. Piling on more messaging dictatorships isn’t improving the communications experience, it’s degrading it. There are some very compelling reasons that you might want to give good old email another look.  It’s not the same as it was at the turn of the century, and it’s become quite mature, robust, and sustainable if you look at it from a different angle.

You have the power

First, you have to realize that “your email” is “your email” and if you hate something about it, that doesn’t have to be how it is forever. You can change things when it comes to email. In fact, you can change almost everything. I know this is hard to understand in a world where so many people have been tricked into giving up their interpersonal communications to centralized locked-down messaging services from Apple, Facebook, Google, etc. (or even your phone company) who are all competing for your data and will dictate what is or isn’t possible on their platforms.  Email isn’t a centralized segregated discriminatory system like Apple’s iMessage, Facebook’s WhatsApp, Telegram, or Signal… it’s completely open and its servers can federate with all of the other servers in the Universe. That means you can have complete control over it, if you want it.

You (not Mark Zuckerberg) can take complete control over it if you want it.

Independence & Autonomy

One of the things that I find kind of ridiculous about other messaging services like WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Slack, etc. is that most of them require another messaging service just to use.  You need an email account in order to use the app store that’s required to install WhatsApp… THEN you also need a phone number with a text messaging service in order to use WhatsApp…  You need to have two other messaging systems already set up on your phone in order to use yet another messaging system that does basically the same things as the other two.  Doesn’t that sound stupid?  It’s like requiring a person to own a car and a bicycle in order to ride the bus.

Email doesn’t depend on other messaging systems. The only real dependencies to make your own email services are that you need an internet connection and a registered domain. Granted some email services do like to ask you for your phone number these days, but that’s not technically necessary, it’s just because those services want to violate your privacy and have a tighter grip on tracking you across other systems. (Though they may disguise that requirement as “security.”)

A vast, diverse & inclusive ecosystem

Being completely open, there are thousands of products available to use with email. You can choose different hosting providers, make your own server, choose a different email program on your laptops, desktops, tablets, phones, smartwatches, televisions, etc.  You can switch server hardware/service/software any time you want. If you have your own domain, you can do that without even changing your address!

Even if you’re using an email server that you can’t change (chosen by work or school or whatever), you still have a huge variety of email programs that can greatly alter your experience. Just because you have a Yahoo.com email address, doesn’t mean you have to use the Yahoo Mail app on your phone or the Yahoo website on your computer. You can log in on just about any other email program out there. There’s a huge amount of flexibility.

Compare this diverse ecosystem to another messaging service like Slack, WhatsApp, Signal, or Telegram and you’ll see that the email ecosystem is vastly superior. If there’s something about WhatsApp you want to change, tough luck, you’re screwed. The entire country of India is learning this just now. See: Backlash on Facebook continues over WhatsApp privacy policy, now in India | Pocketnow

Some may say that having all of these different messaging apps and services might be a good amount of tech diversity as well, however, there’s one big difference… WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, iMessage, etc. are all segregated monarchy systems that don’t communicate with each other. Email’s diverse ecosystem is cooperative and inclusive, allowing anyone to innovate and contribute to the system. It’s like being part of an open global economy vs. being a slave to tyranny.

How to deal with the noise

If you’re one of those people who have thousands of junk mail messages in their email inbox, there are lots of ways to deal with that.  The easiest way is to change your address and then tell the important people what the new “good” address is. Email isn’t like a phone number where you can only have one to give out to people and it costs a lot more money for more phone numbers.  It’s easy to make a new account or alias in order to control who can contact you. Plus, telling your friends/family that you’re changing your email address is a lot better than trying to bully them into installing a crappy centralized messaging app like WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, etc. Nobody has to completely change the way they work when you change your email address, and the people on the other end can stick to their preferred email app.

Only give your private address to real people who you want to communicate with.

My recommendation is to make one account for your private personal/family/friends/VIP messaging.  Only ONLY give that to real people who you want to communicate with. Never let that address get into a business database online, in an app, or anywhere else. I did this about 20 years ago, and that account has stayed totally clean. It’s all actual personal conversations and it’s beautiful!

You probably already have a work email address, too. Use that only for communications with colleagues and clients.  Those two tips alone will filter out the noise very easily.

You still need a place for all of that spam that you get from online shopping, business software/service subscriptions, newsletter subscriptions, web/app subscriptions, device app store sign-ups, etc.  So, either turn your old email account into a spam-bucket account or make a new one accordingly. I’d make a separate one for business/company spam, too. Some people make new email aliases for every single app/service/store/subscription that asks for an email address.  You can use email account aliases or AnonAddy for that kind of thing if you want extremely granular control over your incoming messages. Gmail has a super easy type of aliasing where you just add the + symbol before the @ symbol in your address and then describe what you’re using the address for. Here’s a good explanation of that.

Now with multiple accounts, you’re going to want to use an actual email program instead of a web browser interface. Webmail usually only lets you use one email account at a time, and that’s super inefficient.

Server-side filters to automate processing

Maybe some of your friends sometimes still send messages to your spam address in the above scenario. They’re too lazy to update their contact list with your new address. No problem, you still have control.  You can set up rules and filters on any of your email accounts.  Make one for Bob that forwards his messages to your new account. This way you still get the important messages in your clean account, and can still ignore your spam account.

Filters & mail flow rules can be used for a huge variety of other things too! Depending on which email server you’re using, server-side rules can be extremely useful in managing your communications; prioritizing, categorizing, and routing messages to the right places.

Some servers offer other simple filtering features such as only delivering incoming emails to your inbox if the sender is in your contact list… or only showing inbox messages of people that you’ve replied to. Turning things like that on can greatly reduce the amount of messaging noise. Many servers and services have far more robust features for organizing your conversations, too. There are tons of different options for organizing messaging, conversations, and even tasks in email.  If you’re using Gmail, here are some good tips for using labels:

Visual priority with automatic color coding & categorization

Speaking of server-side rules, another huge tip is to start some automatic categorization. Not all servers support categories. Microsoft Exchange servers (outlook.com, Office 365, Exchange Online) do have a very robust categorization system. Google Gmail hosting has something similar called “labels”, which also copy messages into folders.

Color coding message threads based on my criteria improves cognitive ease with visual prioritization.

For my work email, I set up rules that assign categories based on the sender’s domain names. Every company domain associated with a project gets a category name. In-company domain messages get another category.

Then, in Outlook x86 on Windows, I have custom views set up that color code emails in the listing based on their categories. For example, a priority project might get a bright green eye-catching color, while different projects will get different colors, and in-tenant emails will get yet another color.  This method is much better than the messaging apps that randomly put giant colored circles next to message threads. Those can be very distracting. See Microsoft added random rainbow circles to Outlook Mail and they’re terrible | Pocketnow.  It’s much better for you to personally create a visual hierarchy yourself based on what’s actually important to you.

Here’s a video with lots more Outlook efficiency tips:

Import/Export/Archive and Retention Laws

Being able to manage your conversations also often involves being able to transfer your data between servers and programs. With email, this is a very easy job. With other messaging apps, it’s often impossible. If you have a job, electronic communications related to your business often have retention laws associated with them.  See: Record retention laws. In the USA, all businesses are supposed to retain communications records for 7 years. If you’re using WhatsApp for business communications, that’s probably not happening.

Retention laws are easier to follow with email messaging systems.

With email, most desktop programs have great import/export functions that let you save huge sets of emails to offline storage. Taking them off the server means better security, while still following the data retention laws.  Furthermore, if you want to move all of your conversations to a new server or different hosting service, an easy export from one and import to the other is no problem at all. This is especially important for your IT department. If you’re using WhatsApp or SMS or iMessage for business communications, your IT department doesn’t have any easy way to comply with retention laws on those services. Nor can they enforce security policies.

If personal emails accidentally go to my work account, I can easily drag/drop them into the proper account/server and reply from the proper address, too. Again, that’s not possible with proprietary messaging apps that often only allow you one account that’s tied to your cell phone number; a huge limitation.

Consolidated communications are less stressful

Another awesome thing about email is that you can still have all of those different types of accounts with different purposes accessible within the same app!  This increases cognitive ease since you don’t need to use more brainpower learning multiple messaging apps.  You also don’t need to use more brainpower trying to remember which messaging program which conversations happened in.  It’s a huge waste of cognitive energy trying to keep track of who uses SMS, who uses Facebook Messenger, who uses Slack, who uses Discord, who uses WhatsApp, who uses Skype, who uses Signal, who uses Telegram, who uses… Ah, you get the picture.  That’s way too much work for something that should be much easier. It feels really stupid having to launch and switch between 12 messaging apps to manage all of your conversations… and it is really stupid because that unnecessarily takes up a lot of resources in your brain and on your computer. You could be using that energy for something more productive.

Managing a gabillion text-based messaging apps is a huge waste of time.

But wait… maybe you do want to separate the purposes of different email accounts into different email programs.  Maybe you want one app for your work email during the day and another app for your personal messages in the evenings and on weekends?  No problem! You can do that with email too. Just log in with your work email on whatever email app is best for that, and log in with your personal account on whatever email app is best for that. This is kind of like having WhatsApp for personal messages and Slack for work except you don’t have to force people on the other end into creating accounts that fit into your workflow. Your workflow can be designed for you, while everyone else can choose their own most efficient workflows. You can even mix and match workflows on different systems. Maybe you’ll use Outlook x86 on a Windows PC with all of your accounts, Nine on Android with only some of your accounts, FairMail on Android for one of your accounts, EmClient on Mac for all of your accounts, Gnome Evolution on Linux for your work account, Mutt for your personal account, etc. That kind of freedom and diversity is a huge advantage.

You don’t have to bully people into getting it

Maybe you’re worried that your friends don’t use email. Well, first of all, you can send them a link to this article to show them all the advantages. Secondly, email is the most widely used internet messaging protocol on the internet. It’s practically a requirement to have an email account in order to use the internet, or a computer, or a smartphone, or a tablet, or any kind of social network or internet service. You would have to be a massive Luddite with no internet access in order to not have an email account at all. So… your friends with WhatsApp or Signal or Telegram or any other messaging app are guaranteed to already have an email account. You can’t even install those apps from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store without a store account which is, you guessed it… An email account. In fact, it’s very very difficult to even get an iPhone or Android phone to boot without setting it up with either a new email account or an existing email account. The same is true with Windows PCs and Macs as well. All of these internet-connected devices come with email programs built-in, too!  This means the barrier to entry is extremely low. Lower than even SMS messaging (which doesn’t work on non-phone devices without tedious hacks and software installs). Everyone literally already has at least one email account.

That means there’s no reason to peer pressure people into installing other apps, creating new log-ins, sharing their data with other companies just to communicate with you… and that’s exactly what you had to do to get people to use WhatsApp or Signal or Telegram or AIM or Yahoo Messenger or Skype or… Let’s not start that again. Anyway, switching messaging apps all the time and trying to get friends to do the same is hugely annoying. The whole reason Smartphones were invented in 2002 was so that we could get email without having to sit in front of a computer. That was the killer feature of the wireless internet even when I was using CDPD at 19Kb/s 20 years ago.

You can have security on multiple levels

If you’re worried that email might be insecure, you may be thinking about what email was like in the 1990s. In those days, sure… it was very insecure. But email has evolved just like the WWW has evolved. We have multiple forms of secure transport layers such as SSL, STARTTLS, TLS, TLSA/DANE.  Then we’ve got multiple forms of message encryption such as PGP, Autocrypt, S/MIME, OME, IRM, Tutanota Secure Connect, Criptext, ProtonMail, PreVeil, Virtru, Witopeia, StartMail, etc. (Though be warned that some of those encryption methods, especially the proprietary ones, don’t work in all email programs.)  Then we’ve got multiple server authorization security protocols like DNSSEC, SPF, DKIM, and DMARC.  You can also run email servers on other anonymous & secure networks like I2P or TOR with I2P Bote or any variety of TOR compatible providers.

That all sounds pretty complicated, but your email provider has probably already set up most common security practices, except for the message encryption. So that’s why the heading says “you CAN have great security”. It’s possible, but it takes some know-how, and that’s certainly a disadvantage over something that’s out-of-the-box seriously secure, decentralized, and serverless like Briar. Still, due to email’s open nature, there are many ways to improve security. Ideally, we as a society could continue to upgrade email with a better ecosystem-wide content-encryption user experience instead of handing interpersonal messaging control over to a dictatorship like Facebook.

It’s never going away (dependability)

One of the things about open-source projects and open protocols like Email is that they never really go away. Email is so ingrained as the personal identifier for the internet, you can bet it will stay around for a very long time. Sure, some have started using phone numbers as personal identifiers on the internet, but that’s a bad idea because phone numbers are much easier to guess and therefore easier to spam or abuse. You have no control over your phone number either. Also see: Why are we still using phone numbers?

There are plenty of really old internet protocols still in use today. Remember Gopher? It’s still going. Remember FTP or Usenet or IRC?  All are still going strong. Of course, HTTP is really old, too, and that still works, though we’re mostly upgrading that to HTTPS these days.

Compare that to the most popular early instant messaging apps like AIM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger. None of those work at all anymore. The same thing will eventually happen to other proprietary messaging apps like WhatsApp. Even the open-source Signal app isn’t safe because it only works on a single centralized server (a single point of failure). Also see: Stop being naive when it comes to things like WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, etc.

What email apps should you try?

If you can imagine your perfect messaging app, it probably exists for email.

This all depends on what features you want and what kind of workflow is most efficient for you. Do you want extra security/privacy? Do you want a WhatsApp-style chat interface? Do you want a full personal information management program?  All of the above? It’s probably overwhelming that there are so many options and it might take a while to figure out what works best for you, but here are a few recommendations, and again, the beauty of email is that you can change anything you want at any time. If you only ever access your email through a web browser full of advertisements and tracking scripts, you’re probably missing out on a much better experience.

Microsoft Outlook for Windows

This one is my favorite personal information management program on Windows. I can have all of my accounts in one place with offline archives of old emails as well. Everything can be searched in one place, and one of my favorite things is the ability to make custom views with color-coding for the email listings. The Mac, Android, and iOS versions aren’t as good as they’re missing the custom views feature along with many other features. Outlook is pretty expensive as it’s included in the $250 Microsoft Office perpetual license, or the $12/month subscription license.  The iOS and Android versions are free, but again not as good… still the iOS version of Outlook is among the best available on iOS.

EmClient

If you don’t want to pay for Outlook, the pro version of EmClient is only $49 while the free version works for 2 email accounts at a time. It’s similar to Outlook but has much better support for Google-hosted email accounts. This one is a good choice on Mac OS, too.

Mozilla Thunderbird

This one is free open-source and available for Windows, Mac, & Linux. It’s a good idea to invest in open-source software as they’re more likely to respect your privacy, data, and feature needs. Thunderbird may not seem like much at first, but its plug-in ecosystem allows you a huge amount of flexibility for customizing your experience.

Gnome Evolution

This is my favorite email program on Linux. It’s similar to Outlook and nicely supports Microsoft Exchange servers with all of their other personal information management capabilities.

Nine

This is the best Outlook alternative on Android. It’s far more feature-rich than Microsoft’s Outlook for Android and the lifetime license is only $15. I created text-to-speech notifications for Nine so that I can hear which account I’m receiving emails from so that I don’t have to look at the phone to know what’s going on. If I hear “personal message”, I know it’s friends. If I hear “Incoming video call”, I know it’s someone who’s using my custom “Video Call Adam” app to contact me.  It’s highly customizable and that’s great for power users.

Spike

This is a prime example of how email can be upgraded and simplified. Spike turns email into a chat-style conversational interface and adds modern chat features like read receipts, typing indicators, video chat, better group chat, voice messages, animated GIFs, end-to-end encryption, etc.  Using this really makes other chat apps like WhatsApp feel completely unnecessary. It’s got a great spam filtering method as well. It’s available on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and Web and is free for personal accounts.

Delta Chat

This is another free open-source client, but it’s still in development and might not be perfect just yet. Delta-Chat takes Signal’s user interface and puts it onto email for another chat-like experience. It does this in a much more open-source way than Spike, but also includes the new Autocrypt end-to-end encryption standard and support for using your own self-hosted Jitsi Meet video conference servers. See: 10 Ways Delta Chat is Better than WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram (pocketnow.com)

Of course, there are hundreds of other options out there not just for email programs, but also services, and that diversity (without segregation) is a huge advantage.  A few others I’ve heard people love are Hey.com, SuperHuman.com, Mailfence, and Mailspring. You may try the default email app on your iPhone, fall in love with it, and be set for life. Or you may decide that the iPhone’s Mail app kind of sucks because it doesn’t do push delivery for Gmail accounts, so you’ll try a different one that turns out to be much better.  You can’t do that with things like WhatsApp or Signal who dictate that there’s only one app you can use with their service and if you don’t like it, screw you.

You may have noticed that there are not many webmail options on my list of recommendations, and that’s because most webmail interfaces aren’t that great. They often don’t have good multiple-account interfaces either as each webmail UI is often tied to only one particular service. Plus, if they do have the ability to add other accounts, that’s kind of a bad idea in the security sense since you don’t want one webmail account to get hacked and give up all of your data. It’s better to have a client program that consolidates accounts offline and individually where all of the data can be locked away from the internet when shut down.

Conclusion

Email, and the internet for that matter, is like a global network of roads that allow people and businesses to freely connect to each other around the world. You can choose to buy any of thousands of different types of cars. Or you can rent a car, or pay someone else to transport you, or build your own car.  There’s no dictator telling you that you can only use one specific type of car provided by the dictator in order to use the roads.  If you’re a town or a state or a country or a business, you can upgrade your roads however you want and they’ll still work with any car on the market.  If there’s something wrong with a road, we don’t destroy all roads and start building something completely different… we just fix that road a little and keep it compatible with all the other roads.  That’s how our internet messaging system should be.

Instead, today it’s trendy to pressure your friends/colleagues into switching messaging apps to Signal and/or Telegram… two new messaging dictatorships on the market. Twenty years ago, we had other messaging dictatorships competing with each other and those are no longer around. Do you really think today’s internet messaging dictatorships will stick around?  See: Stop being naive when it comes to things like WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, etc.

A for the people, by the people messaging system would have been much smarter.

Let’s imagine hypothetically that a large country, let’s say India, decided to become dependent on a set of roads that were controlled by some tech company run by a boss who doesn’t even live there. And then the boss decided to change the policy about road usage in order to improve the business plan and make more money for said company, who, again, isn’t even based in that country.  Doesn’t that sound like this country’s decision to put all of their communications in the hands of this one dictator was a bad idea?  That’s where we’re at now with WhatsApp. It should be obvious that a smarter method would have been to build your own roads within the country that can be controlled and maintained by the citizens of that country while still being compatible with the rest of the world. That’s the way email was created.


Adam Z. Lein

Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002. Read more about Adam Lein!





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