Jan 102013
 

I hate distractions while I am at work – especially those which come by mail. For some reasons I get over hundred mails a day – notifications, internal and external mailing lists, group mailings, gigantic discussions via mail threads and important mails directed to me or my team.

As I work in a cross function for the engineering team and have to respond to developer issues in an appropriate time I keep a close eye on my inbox. Concepts like checking mails only to specified times or not at all during the day don’t apply to my work flows, filtering mails into various sub folders makes them forgotten or unseen as I actually want to read all the mail – just not all the time. 

These days my mailbox contains these folders:

  • Inbox: I usually try to keep the total number of mails in there below 100, only mails I have to follow up on or that are related to future events or where I am waiting for response in a mail thread are in there. I have notifications for my inbox active as I want to be notified if there is an important mail. Up until this Monday I got all the clutter of updates, mailing lists etc. in there too which was pretty distracting. 
  • Now what I have setup now is a new secondary inbox and a filter that filters all those mails I don’t need to pay attention in-time. The filters are defined conservatively to ensure that I won’t miss an important mail. The immediate effect is that I got less than 20 new mails in my Inbox over night, 40 more I found in the secondary inbox.
  • {Notifications}: There are a few tools and platforms I receive notification mails from I can’t configure so all status updates about everything is fine go directly in there – I couldn’t care less about. I only worry about something went wrong which stays in my inbox.
  • {Projects} + subfolder: contain mails related to certain projects and initiatives I am working on.  
  • {tech mailing list}: all mails to an internal mailing list – a very valuable source of information which I regularly use to look for answers as I usually remember having seen a related question before, but I never seem to remember the answer.
  • Unsorted: all other mail that is either unrelevant, resolved or any other information. I used to have a much finer granulation, but at the end I don’t really care about threads that are out of date and hence I don’t need to make the effort to sort them.  

This might be common sense, but years of creating massive filters, creating no filters, having smart mailboxes, reading about suggested workflows I never found a solution tailored to my needs. Now it’s simple: I check the inbox as soon as I got the notification of a new mail, I check the secondary inbox 2-3 times a day.

Btw, while writing this I noticed that Gmail actually tries to do something similar with the Priority Inbox which seems to be the reverse approach of the above. 

For my private mails I took a different approach a while ago. For private mails I use Gmail which comes with a different set of features than the chosen mail server of my company. In the past I had a lot of subfolders, rules and configurations which ended up in a massive inbox with over 10.000 unread mails, tons of unread mail in other folders and I never really noticed if I had new mails or not and where they ended up. So one day I archived all mail and marked it as read disregarding if there was something I wanted to follow up or not and started with a clean Inbox – 0 mails. I removed all filters: all mail to my private mailbox gets delivered to my inbox, I delete it, read it and/or either archive it straight away, answer it or leave it for follow up. Goal here is to have less than 20 mails in the inbox and to have a clear overview of whom I owe an answer.

So long story short: Simplicity rules, automated filters and folders suck.

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Nov 112009
 

Gah, I sit in front of my machine swearing a lot. I try to sort my last 3 weeks mail looking for tasks I might have forgotten or not. It is a pain – so much noise: ongoing conversations about tasks not related to me, loads of mails with attachments such as signature images – a couple of times forwarded, wrong combined threads, no related sent mails, some mails seem to be disappeared. Why is it so difficult to get a satisfying solution serving all my requirements when it comes to mail management? I am not greedy!

What I want:

Can deal with IMAP

  • show all folders w/o subscribing them
  • immeadiately show new mails
  • allow to create new folders in frontend

Viewing mails

  • can be configured by folder
  • turn off / on by desire
  • allow to split threads
  • hiding mails in threads (full / consolidated view)
  • thread contain also sent mails

Tagging

  • easy UI for tagging mails (instead of folders) – such as project name
  • rule based tagging
  • different flags such as todo, read it later, follow up by <date>
  • allows to watch threads (favourite settings)
  • prioritize income mail (to split between helpful / important mail and random muttering) – I don’t care which priority is set by the sender. I want to configure the level of importance to me.
  • allow commenting of mails
  • get reference to a specific mail (a file system link which can be used in a to do management tool) – I don’t want to get a mail client with it’s own to-do management system, i want to combine it with my existing system. not every mail causes an todo, not every todo is related to a mail.

Received mails

  • preview without formatting
  • switch between show mail as text or with original formatting
  • hide attached

Searching mails

  • no form for search but pseudo language similar to what google offers
  • fuzzy search – such as ‘ad hoc’ returns ‘adhoc’, ‘ad-hoc’, ‘ad hoc’ etc.
  • search result can be saved as link
  • mass change on found mail (such as category)
  • being intelligent enough to define multiple forwarded mails with the same content as one hit.

Sending mails

  • multiple signatures configurable
  • signature based on rules – depending on the recipient (containing pattern), if replied / forwarded / new mail etc.
  • add tags, flags and follow up configuration if necessary – without popping into 4 windows
  • on click send as text / formatted
  • attachments upload in background
  • mail as attachment can be chosen as well (yes, sometimes this is required!)
  • forwarding: detect and ignore images in signatures automatically

Additional features:

  • fast, intuitive, basic UI – no features, no advertisements, no additional functionality i don’t need.
  • runs on mac, windows and in the internet
  • can deal with 10K+ mails
  • nice address book management: identifying major information e. g. from email footers
  • tbc :)

Why not:

  • Gmail: lots of my requirements can be solved by GMail. But, alas! I might be identified as spam due to the way how external email addresses are handled. I worked around my requirements quite a bit to get them solved with GMail it slows it down and breaks it on every other browser.
  • Mac Mail on Zimbra: this is my current solution and just makes me swear – a lot. Mac Mail doesn’t load mails immediately, threading doesn’t work as desired. Finding mails is impossible. It randomly sorts mails in different folders – for unknown reason there are tw sent folders and I don’t see a pattern which mail gets sorted into which folder by which condition. I suspect mac mail also either hiding or deleting messages as there has been more then once the situation about ‘I knew I got that mail but I don’t find it’.
  • Zimbra Desktop client: no! it is heavy, ugly and not intuitive to use, it needs too many clicks to get to a specific result, the UI is not configurable, the Mac ingtegration (address book, calendar) doesn’t work properly, it has a huge Yahoo search button which I every so often hit accidentally when I want to search for mails. The search UI is crap.

I haven’t tried anything else yet. I used Outlook quite a bit, it’s similar to GMail: it solves half of my requirements. Entourage I didn’t try at all after my desperation earlier this year.

Why is it so important?

  • working in a company which is spread around the world email is a key communication channel. easy access to the information is important.
  • I get about 100 new mails a day – some directly to me, some interesting in mailing lists and some other to mailing lists I don’t need to follow up.
  • I hate being inefficient by manually (!) searching for mails, browsing through noise to find something specific.

What next?

Feel free to recommend work flows, tools, mail clients etc. I am happy to learn.

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Oct 102009
 

In two articles I was ranting about Mac and Mail and my issues to get it working: here part I: desperation and part II: a first guess about the cause.

Right now I think I know the cause and have a work around: As I am working most time remotely I was connected to the company network via VPN via IPSec using the Cisco VPN client. Whenever I got connected the mail server settings got invalid, the SMTP server IP (not its address) changed to an internal one. Mac OSX seems to cache it somehow. Meanwhile the VPN configuration in the company got changed, now VPN works via SSL and I am using the CISCO AnyConnect Client instead. Now I don’t have an issue anymore – as long as I work remote.

Getting back into the office forces me to remove the settings for the SMTP server and add it again. There seems to be some timeout. When I tried it out it sent mails properly after a couple of minutes. Annoying, but as I usually don’t work in the office, it is ok for me.

As client I am still using Mac Mail. As of now there are only a few things I need to find an improvement for:

  • I can’t add IMAP folders, right now I’m forced to log in via the web client to solve it.
  • It doesn’t save the display settings per folder.
  • The Growl integration doesn’t work.

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Sep 242009
 

Right now I’m getting an idea what could cause the trouble. It seems to be related to the VPN connection I’m using to connect to the company’s network. Some of the used mail clients seem to get confused as soon as I connect or disconnect to one of the VPN’s as then the mail server’s IP changes. Entourage seems to be less confusable than Mac Mail. I’m looking for confirmation and workarounds now.

And yes, maybe I’m an idiot. I’m just learning some basics about IMAP. Sometimes it is required to
subscribe folders. Done this in Entourage and have seen my full folder
tree. Guess what I see them in Thunderbird too – and I still don’t like it.

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Sep 232009
 

Since about 2 weeks I have the macbook pro. I’ve set it up and I am quite happy with it. I’m a bit annoyed with the ambient light sensor which is always useful except a source of light is directly behind you and you are moving. a fix was a post-it-note away. what really bothers me is finding a proper mail client.

These are my preconditions: It’s a Zimbra mailbox which I can access via IMAP. The connection is SSL secured. In my mailbox I’ve created quite a lot folders to organize my stuff. In total I have about 50+ folders stored in a tree with maximum 4 levels. In total there are about 4000+ mails with a size of about 1.4 GB. There are a filters pre-sorting my mails in different folders.

What I wan to get:

  • receive and send Zimbra mails via IMAP or connector instantly
  • notification about new mails ideally integrated in growl. I want to decide on my own if I’m going to ignore a mail or not.
  • configure if unread or read count or both are shown
  • add, move and remove IMAP folders
  • manage several signatures

I suppose my basic issues are simply the size of the mailbox and the fact that folders in IMAP aren’t a well documented feature. I’ve tried a few mail programs and now I am nothing but frustrated.

What I tried so far:

  • Microsoft Entourage: To be honest I was quite happy with Outlook on Windows. So Microsoft Entourage seemed to be a good choice. As Outlook gets a proper Zimbra connector on Windows I expected Entourage running fine on Mac OS, too. Unfortunately there is no similar connector and so the access happens via IMAP. In result of that my folders don’t get displayed properly: sometimes sub folders were missing and after loading a few folders I couldn’t add more. I removed and added the mailbox again but couldn’t fix that behavior. I gave up on Entourage.
  • Mac Mail.app: seemed to be the logical choice. It comes with Mac OS, is highly integrated etc. I setup the mail server, all folders got loaded and I was glad. Then it took me a while to find out how to turn on the threaded view of mails. So I started using the application and learned to love it. The only annoying thing is that my outgoing mail server occasionally gets marked as offline. It happened in the beginning once or twice a day and it was easy to fix with re-adding the outgoing mail server. Since yesterday it doesn’t work at all any more. No matter what I’m doing 90% of my mails don’t get send. I don’t see a pattern what occurs this behavior and I don’t know how to work around. There are several forum entries but none of them helped me so far. As I can’t rely on the program sending my mails properly and as I keep forgetting checking if the send mail did indeed what it is supposed to do I looked for other alternatives. Btw, a bit annoying I found that I can’t create IMAP folders, too.
  • Thunderbird: yeah.. I don’t like it. I have used it quite a long time but for some reasons I just stopped using it. Nothing particular caused that. I gave it a try with my Zimbra mailbox. It failed and I uninstalled it. I could manually add my IMAP folders. Realizing that the name of a folder has to be unique made Thunderbird for me unusable too.
  • Claws Mail: installed via macports (which should indicate where the nerdy hint came from) it seemed to be quite nice. I liked the UI, it loaded all my folders. It had a nice statistic about read and unread counts. Claws mail had potential to be loved. But alas as it is a linux port it isn’t integrated into Mac OS properly and so i didn’t get notified about new mail. Which is a fail. Additionally the sync with Zimbra took too long whenever I clicked into a folder it got reloaded and sync’d with the mailbox which takes a while if you have 1000+ mails in a folder.
  • Zimbra Desktop: I finally gave up and installed it. I hate it. I’ve used it before and from my point of view it is just crap. Again nothing particular. I just don’t like the UI and the way how it needs to be configured. I’ve set it up 2 h ago and it is still synchronizing. I got since then a few new mails where I didn’t got notified about. This might be related to that it is still sync’ing. I’ve used it to answer mails. It can send them but in the writing panel there is no cursor for some reasons.
  • Zimbra web front end: All the hassle because I don’t want to use it, because I want to have an offline access to my mails. I want to get notified by more than a blinking tab. I want to have a UI that is simple, not having loads of toolbars with loads of buttons and loads of functions. And I particularly hate the color scheme they are using.

Right now I’m frustrated and have a couple of programs opened, none of them satisfies me. Mac Mail.app would be my first choice if I could send mails. Entourage seems to be nice, too. Also Claws mail I would give a choice if it would work for me. Thunderbird and Zimbra desktop just reflect my level of desparation. As of now it seems to me I’m going to spend my time on finding a proper solution.

Some other Zimbra-features I am using are:

  • Calendar: I’m happy about the calDav feature: maintaining my calendar and accessing other calendars works as smoothly as stable. 
  • Contacts: I’m not happy about the directory integration. Although I was following this article I still can’t access the global address book. I think this might probably be a matter of time and a bit more patience from my side.

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