The Email Experiment: Another Quick Check-In

Posted on February 2, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, iOS, Mobile, Office 365, Outlook.com, Windows 10 with 67 Comments

Back in September, I began examining alternatives to Google Inbox, which is being retired at the end of March. It’s taken a while, but I’ve found the app I’ll be using on mobile. And a recent change to Windows 10 may provide my answer on the desktop, too.

Yes, it’s been a while since my last formal update on this topic, sorry. But it’s come up a few times in Ask Paul, and my search for an Inbox alternative has triggered a reexamination of how I interact with email. And after some initial experimentation, the focus on the desktop has sort of shifted away from web clients—where I had expected to land—to native clients (as is the case on mobile).

This is one of those things that is simple … and yet is also paradoxically not that easy to explain. But the way my mind works, especially with something as esoteric as managing multiple email accounts, is that once I figure out something, and get it working efficiently, I basically stop thinking about it. And over time, I lose the ability to even defend why things are configured the way they are: I just know that I did it right in the past, and I forget why or even how I did it. It’s a real gift.

Looking at email specifically, I spent considerable time and energy years ago figuring out the most efficient way to handle multiple email accounts via a single service. This is a form of consolidation that requires you to push email from one or more secondary accounts to a single primary account and then configure that primary account to be able to send mail on behalf of those secondary accounts. Once the plumbing works, you’re good to go: You just use a single primary account on the web and it receives all of your email to that single location.

That works fine on the desktop. But on mobile, things work differently. On mobile, you will typically use a native app, and it can connect to any number of accounts. The consolidation work you did on the web to get all your email from multiple accounts will apply to the mobile app, too, of course. But if you wish to send email from your secondary accounts on mobile, you’ll need to set them up in the mobile app too.

But there are two further complications.

First, where the web client is smart enough to ensure that any replies to email are sent from the correct account, the mobile app can’t do this. Once you start pushing email from secondary accounts to a primary account, it all looks like email sent to the primary account to the mobile app. So you lose this smart reply functionality (meaning the ability to automatically reply from the right account.)

Second, and perhaps even worse, I discovered during my recent experimentations that the process of forwarding email between accounts causes you to lose emails. And some of them are actually important emails, too. The issue here, I think, is that you’re subjecting email messages to at least two different spam/junk email engines. But whatever the cause, emails get lost. And that is unacceptable.

Fixing this is easy enough.

Well, in theory, it is. Instead of forwarding email between accounts, simply maintain those individual accounts separately. Then, pipe them through a single client on both desktop and mobile that can be configured to collect and send email from multiple accounts. In this scheme, the consolidation, such as it is, occurs on the client—via a single inbox view, typically, though that’s your choice—and not up in the cloud. So each service handles its own spam/junk email checking, and you still benefit from a central location for everything.

Maybe this just sounds logical to you. But it’s contrary to how I’ve done things for years, and because Google’s Inbox service—which is a web client on desktop and a normal mobile app on phones—is so damned good, so efficient and minimalistic, I just stopped thinking about it. Until, of course, Google announced that it was killing off Inbox. And now this is something I can’t stop thinking about.

Yes, I left my options open. But I did originally expect to choose some other web-based email client on the desktop—Outlook.com, most likely, or perhaps Gmail if I could figure out a way to not make it look so terrible—and then just use the corresponding mobile app on my phone (Outlook mobile or Gmail). The lost email thing threw me for a loop. And then I started thinking differently.

What if I could leave each email account separate—no more forwarding, no more lost emails—and just find a great native client on both desktop and mobile?

What if.

On mobile, this is easy: Microsoft’s Outlook mobile is that client, and while I’m still not ready to give up Google Calendar on mobile—it’s just a great calendar app—Outlook does also include calendar functionality if I want to go in that direction. Outlook mobile is great. I wish I could just run that on the desktop.

Instead, Microsoft offers two options that couldn’t be further apart: Microsoft Outlook, the massive, overbearing, and too-complex desktop application that I get as part of my Office 365 Home subscription and (Windows) Mail, the curiously inept email client that comes free with Windows 10. (The related Calendar app is fine, and I could easily use that.)

Microsoft Outlook (on the desktop) is a non-starter. Every time I fire it up, I want to rip my fingernails out.

As for Mail, I have a few issues, but the biggest one is that it doesn’t let you scale the text in email messages. And—to my eyes, at least—the text is always too small. If this app would simply let me configure a feature that’s been common in email applications since the 1990s, I could use it. And that would be one less third-party app I need to install every time I fire up a new or recently-reset Windows 10 PC. Put another way, since I use web app shortcuts for mail (and for calendar and Twitter), it would be one less instance in which I was dependent on Google Chrome as well.

And then something happened, as we say in the Microsoft world.

Yesterday, Microsoft announced a new Windows 10 Insider Preview build for 19H1, the version of Windows that will ship in the next few months. And it adds a new feature to the Mail app called Default Font, which Microsoft describes as “a top customer request.” Interesting, since I’ve been harping on this for four years now.

“Now you can customize how new messages will look,” the firm explained. “If you create a new mail or reply to an existing mail, the text you type will be in the font face, size, color, and emphasis you have selected … Default font applies per-account and does not roam to other devices.”

This could solve my problem. I’m away this weekend without an Insider-based PC to test to be sure. But it looks like Microsoft has finally—belatedly—answered my prayers. And it has done so with less than two months to spare until the Google Inbox retirement.

So that’s my current plan, such as it is. I’ve delinked all of my email accounts. I’m checking them all from Outlook mobile on my phone. And I’ve configured Mail in Windows 10—albeit in the shipping version of Windows 10, which lacks default font customization for now—to do the same.

And this may just work.

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