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Whatever happened to the email app?

How we all went off-message

Opera Mail - surprisingly unsung

That leaves one of the best kept secrets on all three platforms Windows, Mac and Linux uncovered. Meeting Opera founder and chairman Jon von Tetzchner last week I nagged him, as I almost always do, about the secret Opera mail project. Opera has been hiding an amazing email program for seven years now, in a place nobody would think of looking: in a web browser. Was now the time to spring this on an unsuspecting world?

I'm still not sure. In fact, I'm entirely certain Opera isn't going to start promoting Mail all of a sudden. But you can't accuse von Tetzchner of not eating his own dog food: he said he personally has between 20GB and 30GB of email in his own Opera Mail email archive, going back over 15 years. He agrees the landscape is pretty dire now: "Email clients have gone away."

But making it a mass market product was a question of resources, and right now Opera's desktop browser team is going pell mell in a Javascript benchmark war with Google. In mitigation he pointed out that Thunderbird had been neglected for years too, even though the functionality was there, inherited from the old Netscape.

beos/haiku operating system screenshot

BeMail (running on Haiku OS)
Live searches a decade before Windows

It's not as if Opera has been completely neglecting Opera Mail. In version 9.5, it got a significant overhaul which saw the back end revamped, resulting in much improved performance: there are no stutters even with multiple accounts, or multi-gigabyte mail archives.

(As an aside, Vista and Vista 2010 Windows 7 seem to have this annoying habit of turning a stuttering, but still functioning program into a system-wide seizure - the screen dramatically fades into white then back again, the conventional effect Hollywood uses when the main character is hit over head by a wrench, and passes out. After a while a dialog box pops up asking you if you want to terminate the stuttering process - which was actually doing fine until Windows decided to "help". I found that all these email programs - Live Mail - the Bat, occasionally even Thunderbird - suffered from nanny Microsoft sizing them up for a premature kill. But I digress.)

What confounds newcomers to Opera Mail is its database-like approach. At first, you never quite know what's going on. Initial versions (back when Opera called it M2) eschewed folders completely. The program replaced the mailbox hierarchy view with "live views" and a Bayesian engine you were expected to train, giving you more views onto the mail.

The real-time search worked (and still works) incredibly well. But I'm not alone in feeling disconcerted by the lack of mail folders, and was relieved when Opera made a concession recently to view by IMAP folder. Couldn't Opera break newcomers in gently?

Jon von Tetzchner's answer was a polite version of "well, boo hoo". He said he couldn't imagine anything more tedious than filing away 300 emails every day into boxes. But that's not the point, I thought, if you've already invested in mailboxes and IMAP folders.

Here's an example. A mail rule will divert your mailing lists (for example) into a mailbox. You then pick out the ones you keep into another mailbox, and trash the rest. The way to do this in Opera Mail is that it will automatically create a view for a mailing list, and a filter will cut down the one with stars or a particular tag. It's much easier if you start the Opera way, but the Opera way is not much help if you've already got mailboxes.

Opera Mail is probably just one or two UI features short of capturing refugees from Outlook, Eudora and the rest. Chairman Jon mentioned that somebody had even skinned Opera to make the Mail program look like a fully independent email application, a tribute to how radically you can customise Opera (I haven't been able to find the skin in question to corroborate this). [Update: it's called Hugin and you can find it here. Thanks to Jeroen for the link] Labels could be easier to customise (it's quite a manual effort now).

These are unlikely to come from the 'community', because Opera doesn't work that way. But for now, alas, this amazing software remains quite forbidding. I modestly suggest that if users were able to pay a small fee for an "Opera Mail Edition", in the knowledge that development was active, and features people needed were being added, then wonderful things could happen.

But paying for software development? Whatever next? ®

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