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Bill Bennett

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GMail’s less than perfect iPad app

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Although Apple’s stock iPad mail app is perfectly adequate and does a good job handling Gmail, Google created its own Gmail iPad app. This makes sense to people committed to Google’s mail service and wider technology stack.

It works fine for dealing with text mail messages, but fails badly when people send messages laid out using tools like HTML or, worse, text embedded in images. The mail body appears to the right of the message list – as shown in the picture above.

Often the text is tiny – in some cases in 4 or 5 point size – making it unreadable. You can, of course, zoom the message pane, but it’s clumsy when line lengths don’t readjust.

There are two lessons from this:

  • Why bother with a separate Gmail app when it does the job less well than the standard iPad mail app?
  • The problem underlines why you should stick with plain text in mail messages. Save the fancy stuff for web sites.

Microsoft’s four flawed Windows 8 mail clients

If you’re not confused by the half-modern, half-old-school Windows 8 user interface, try navigating the operating system’s email client choices. That’s a real muddle.

Microsoft’s Windows 8 comes pre-loaded with a whole slew of what were formerly called Metro apps. Some are pointless – what sane person would even click on the Travel app more than once a year? Others are second-rate or under-powered.

Windows’ built-in Mail app falls into the last category. It looks good, but that’s about it. There’s not much flexibility. Performing simple tasks like searching or attaching files are unnecessarily complicated and it can’t even open the inline images served up in emails coming from my Gmail account.

The good news is there’s an alternative. In fact, Microsoft offers three alternatives. Top of the list in terms of familiarity is Outlook 2013 – which arrived on my system as part of the Office suite. Outlook is not bad for a full-blown desktop email client and looks even better than the built-in Metro Mail app.

But desktop email clients are so 1990s. And the address book part of the application – which was the best reason to stick with Outlook and not move to web-based email – is not as useful as it was. Compared with Gmail, Outlook 2013 feels clumsy. If you have to use it because that’s how they roll where you work, then the application is acceptable. I work for myself and my decision is to bypass the behemoth for something lightweight.

Live mail

Maybe something like Windows Live Mail. Or maybe not. Windows Live Mail – which you can download as part of the misleadingly named Windows Live Essentials package – is in effect a cut-down, milquetoast version of Outlook.

Like the other two mail clients we’ve already rejected, Microsoft has done a grand job of making Windows Live Mail look good. It has a calendar and a decent address book along with a nice RSS reader, but is is still not as practical as Gmail.

Outlook.com is Microsoft’s web-based mail client. The service is a reworking of Hotmail, which was looking tired. Again there’s a beautiful crisp design. All four mail clients look good and have well designed user interfaces. It is hard to fault Microsoft in that department. It is even harder to fault Microsoft over the way Outlook.com works.

Overall a terrific tool for reading and writing mail. It would be my weapon of choice except for one failing – and sadly the failing isn’t to do with Outlook.com. The reason why I’m not using Outlook.com as my mail client is because it can’t play the role of Windows 8’s default mail client.

You can set any of the other three apps as the default – opening when you hit a mailto link in a browser window. Gmail can do this from Google’s Chrome browser running on Windows 8, so you’d think it would be trivial to get Outlook.com to do the same. Think again. It can’t. There are even snarky messages from Microsoft support people at the often excellent Microsoft Answers site explaining to us dumb users why making this possible would be a bad thing. Screw them.

So for the moment, I’m going to stick with Gmail. Gmail is not perfect, but it is web-based and behaves the way I want. That’s reason enough.

Update: I’ve just read Windows 8 Mail App: Better, but Still Bad by Steve Wildstrom. He seems on the same track as me.

Greetings and salutations: How to address mail

There’s a great post on this subject at Are greetings and salutations redundant in a mail?

Mail, or email if you still live in the last century, is a quick, efficient way of communicating.

It has a problem. People often come across as rude. Some people are rude. There’s no getting away from that. Others sound rude even when they don’t mean to.

To get around this, I start mail with ‘Hi’. If I know the person’s name I use it. This is respectful, but informal and short. It doesn’t carry any baggage.

Assumptions

Any other word here seems wrong. Mails that start with ‘good morning‘ or ‘good evening’ are polite, but make potentially wrong assumptions about when mail is read. ‘Dear Mr…’ sounds like something from Jane Austin.

‘Hello’ is acceptable, although it can sound twee. ‘Hey’ works if you know the other person well and want to sound jaunty.

I sometimes remember to write ‘Kia Ora’ when mailing another New Zealander. If the phrase offends people, then that’s an added bonus. It can get an odd reception from overseas.

There’s no need to sign-off with anything at the end of a message. I have a signature at the bottom of my mail. That’s to let people know how to get in touch. Nothing else.

Google Wave bye bye as service closes

Good riddance to Google Wave.

I never understood what the fuss was about.

Wave may have been clever programming, but it didn’t do anything other applications already did better. Google has better tools for most Wave tasks.

It did instant messaging although Google already had tools that do the same job.

Wave did communications. Why bother when Gmail is so much better?

Collaboration Wave

Wave was a collaboration tool. Who needs that when collaborating on Google Docs is so easy?

There was a social media twist to Wave, but Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin are all simpler to use and way more polished. Although they each come with problems.

Wave had a bad user interface and was difficult to use.

More importantly, it was difficult to understand what was going on and what one was supposed to do.

Google Wave was a flop. Let’s hope the search giant learns lessons from the experience.

Good morning, g’day, kia ora, how are you?

Writing ‘good morning’ at the start of emails seems a good idea. The words sound friendly and upbeat. It’s not as good as kia ora.

You don’t know when the message arrives at the other end. Nor do you know when the reader opens it.

At best ‘good morning’ doesn’t make sense. At worst, it looks rude. It says the writer hasn’t thought about the person at the other end.

This matters if you are in business. An out-of-place ‘good morning’ might be read as “I’m happy to take your money, but I’m too lazy to think about how you might read my email”.

Writers have no control over when people read their emails, so it is best not to start communications that way even when you’re in the same time zone as the reader.

Good morning makes an assumption. If it’s the wrong assumption it can come across as arrogant.

If you want to seem polite or friendly, just start the email with hi or hello followed by the person’s name.

Kia ora

New Zealanders have two better options. Kia ora is a Māori phrase everyone should know. Strictly speaking it means “good health” but it is widely used as an alternative to “hi”.

The other possibility is g’day – which we share with Australia. It’s a little old-fashioned these days, but serviceable.

Hi, kia ora and g’day have the advantage of working at any time of the day or night. They don’t make presumptions about what is going on at the other end of the communication.