Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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Mailboxer

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My entrance into five digit sent mail space made me think a bit about e-mail and e-mail clients. The main feature which I’ve considered missing in OS X’s e-mail client since I started using it are automatic per-person mailboxes.

If you’re an orderly type you’ll probably be interested in filing the e-mails you receive in mailboxes for each sender. Doing that will either require some manual filing or an elaborate set of filter rules. Personally I’m with the manual filers as I like to keep messages in the inbox until I’m done with them and only then ‘file’ them where I can find them again later. Depending on your taste you’ll also want to file your own sent messages in these folders so you have an easier time when trying to reconstruct e-mail exchanges later on.

If you want all of this done automagically by your e-mail client, you’ll need numerous filter rules to make it work. And you’ll have to take care that these filter rules are up-to-date. People get new e-mail addresses all the time. Some people even get married and pick up a new name on the way. I always loathe these changes, but still I try to add each new e-mail address a contact picks up to his or her Address Book record. If only because that’s what I need to do to ensure that all e-mails from that contact will have his or her photo show up when I read the message.

What enrages me a bit in this context is that Apple is really missing a great opportunity here. They have already done all the heavy lifting: A Mail application that manages and displays all your messages, an indexing service that keeps an up-to-date index of those messages and lets you make moderately fast queries and an address book that can take all your contact information and provide it to the applications on your computer.

Those different parts of the system even integrate in some places. The Mail application will use addresses from your address book both when you enter an address and to display the photo of an e-mails sender along with the message. Similarly it uses the indexing technology to give you reasonably broad and speedy searches as well as Smart Mailboxes. All that is neat. But it omits the final step – integrating all three technologies in one place.

Mail won’t let you define smart folders for ‘all e-mail from this contact’. And from a technical point of view I can see the reason for that as the index just not containing the relevant information to make this work. Taking the point-of-view of a user, though, I don’t understand that. With the names and e-mail addresses of my friends changing over time, do I want a smart mailbox with just the e-mails from alex@gmail.com or would I rather have a smart mailbox containing all messages from my friend Alex? Most likely the latter.

So why doesn’t Mail just offer a smart mailbox for each contact in your address book, the search terms of which automatically update as the information in your address book changes to match messages to and from all e-mail addresses associated to the contact. Sounds so easy!

Easy enough for me to claim that it shouldn’t be a problem to get the Address Book and Spotlight based technology working rather quickly. The real challenge would be making this reasonably usable. Which’d essentially mean that this has to be integrated right into Mail as anything else would be cumbersome. And that integration would necessarily end up being hackish or difficult.

But then I discovered that Mail simply stores all the settings for its smart mailboxes in a single properly list file. And thus the simple idea to just write a little program which grabs the necessary contact information from the address book and updates that file with a bunch of smart mailboxes based on the contact information was born. Far from perfect and a bit hackish. But doing the job and – most importantly – reasonably easy to do.

Smart Mailboxes for all the Alexes I know And after a bit of fiddling I can present Mailboxer, a little application which does what I just described. Run it and it will first quit Mail, then add a smart mailbox for each of your contacts to Mail’s smart mailboxes and then launch Mail again. There are some additional tweaks which I found useful. Mailboxer will make one copy of the previously existing property list file just in case things go wrong. And if you have a group named Mailboxer in your address book, just the contacts from that group will be used rather than every single contact.

Hm, hm, nice. Whether this is actually as useful as I imagine it to be remains to be seen.

It seems that having plenty of smart mailboxes causes Mail to go into phases of wild activity from time to time. Caching the Spotlight results perhaps? So with that in mind, I wonder what having plenty of smart mailboxes will do the processor and memory load Mail places on the system.

March 26, 2006, 14:18

Tagged as earthlingsoft, Mailboxer.

Comments

Comment by Tobias: User icon

In four digit music space lots of smart playlists make iTunes unusably sluggish. As Spotlight has much more overhead I don’t think your idea will be practical. Something I’d like to see is a button do display the whole thread a message belongs to, cobbled together from Inbox, Archive and Sent folders.

March 26, 2006, 17:59

Comment by ssp: User icon

Interesting point! Mail seems to try to keep an unread count for the smart mailboxes which creates that load. I don’t really see how you establish the relation to iTunes though. I couldn’t really establish that the smart mailboxes actually slow down my other applications (just that they make sure the processor is fully used and that the iBook’s fan might start running which is annoying enough on its own…)

That thread feature would be really useful. But before we see this I guess we’d have to wait for a threading feature that’s actually up to the job rather than the half-assed feature we have now which just matches all messages that have the same subjects.

March 27, 2006, 2:11

Comment by Sebastian: User icon

Opera had (and probably has) that feature: You could click on a contact in the built-in address book (that integrated the Apple Adress Book BTW) and see all emails from and to this person in the mail tab.

I stopped using Opera during the extremely slow 7.x versions, though, and started using Mail/Safari. Although Opera in my opinion is the most advanced browser and a very good mail client, it just didn’t feel “Mac OS X”-y enough to go back.

March 27, 2006, 11:42

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