The Care and Feeding of your Dinosaur

Raisin cookies that look like chocolate chip cookies are one of the many reasons I have trust issues.

Continuing my series on Windows Phone 8, today I am turning my attention to email.  For many years now tech pundits have suggested that email is dead – or, at the very least, is on life support awaiting a Supreme Court ruling which will pull the plug.  Most of the time the reason given is that the overwhelming amount of spam kills any value.  Truth is, though, we get just about as much physical spam in the way of bulk mail, yet the US Postal Service manages to remain afloat. 

OK, maybe that is not the best analogy.

Regardless, there are lots of replacements for email, from collaborative systems in the workplace such as Confluence or SharePoint to services like Twitter or Facebook.  The problem with using these tools as email replacement is that they are, in effect, walled communities with no outside communication.  Let’s take an example – I want to tell my Mom that I am going to be passing through San Diego on a business trip and would like to have lunch.  I don’t have any collaborative space anywhere that my Mom shares, so I have to find some other means of communication.  My Mom doesn’t really use Facebook, so she might not see something posted on her wall until days after I have left.  And Twitter?  I’d sooner teach Mom to skydive than try to explain that, and even if I felt the amount of self-loathing necessary to undertake the task, I would still have the same issue as Facebook – she probably wouldn’t see it until it was too late.  And text messages are only good when she has her phone nearby.

Email, on the other hand, she checks dutifully every time her iPad, iPhone or laptop beeps at her.

Truth is, as much as pundits would like you to believe email is dead, it is still very much alive and relevant to far more people than not.  Because there is such rampant abuse in the form of spam, it becomes that much more important to have a reliable and useful tool to help manage mail.  With the ability to remove the tether to my desk that mobile devices provides, each platform (mobile, web and desktop) needs to work in concert with the others whether directly or indirectly.  And so we arrive at the topic of today’s “learning to live with Windows Phone 8”: email.

The first thing I want to say about the native email clients is just how visually appealing they are.  Each client sports a clean presentation of information that makes finding what you are looking for in your inbox a breeze.  New mail is nicely highlighted and multiple views of the inbox are offered to make managing the mail on the go that much easier.

And that is the last nice thing I am going to say about email on Windows Phone 8.

I will admit that the first grievance I have with mail is one that is shared with Android.  Both iOS and Blackberry seemed to have managed the creation of a unified inbox, but this concept has eluded both Windows Phone and Android.  A unified inbox, in case you are wondering, brings the mail from all of your sources to one common inbox, meaning you only have to look in one application to find your mail.  As it stands right now, using both my own Office 365 account plus Gmail, I have to look in 2 different programs to see my email.  But, curiously enough, both use the same system alert sound so when mail arrives I have to pull out my phone and/or tablet to find out which account received email before I decide what I need to do.

For me, though, there are bigger sins the email clients in Windows Phone commits.  The first one involves reading messages.  When it downloads the message from the server, Windows Phone does not automatically bring down any graphics associated with the message.  The reason for this is to limit the amount of data consumed by the email client – downloading images for a lot of spam can be costly, and I support conservation when it comes to my wallet.  There are some senders that I know I always want to see the entirety of their message, and in the Android world I simply tell the client when downloading the images that I always want to see images from this sender.  Not so in Windows, though.  I can’t find anywhere to set that option – or, for that matter, where I would just turn on auto-download of all images.  Every time I open a message, I have to instruct Windows to download the images associated with the message.

When I am done with the message and have decided to either move the message to a folder or delete it, my expectation is that I will move on to the next message (either older or newer, my choice).  Again, this is an option in all of the Android clients I have worked with.  Not so in Windows.  After every action on a single piece of email I am returned to my email list and then have to manually choose which email to open next.  When I am done processing that message, I return to the list to begin again. 

Group processing of emails is also an issue.  Each client offers a checkbox selection, but none of them allow you to select all out of the gate.  If I have 10 messages to process, I can’t just select all of them at once – I must hit the button which adds the checkbox option to each message, then I have to manually select each message.  Once that is done, I have two easy buttons to use – delete or move to folder.  If I want to mark the selections as read or unread, add a flag or anything else, I have to open another menu and choose the option.  Windows seems so good at adding context options – why are these not options displayed with delete and move to folder?  Seems strange.

The single greatest sin, though, has to be how genuinely easy it is for my Windows Phone email systems to become out of sync with the mail server and other devices.  My goal is to manage my email on whichever device I currently have in my possession and that the changes I make there will flow to all other devices within a reasonable amount of time.  I do NOT want to manage the same email on each device, yet with Windows Phone I have been forced to do that.

Let me give you an example: I get 5 messages in my Gmail inbox while I am working on my laptop.  I have my Gmail account on my Lumia 1520 set to check every 15 minutes.  I process the messages on my laptop, assuming that in a worst case scenario it will be 15 minutes until all 5 email messages are updated properly on my phone.  This is what I mean by that: I process 2 of the messages and while I am reading the third, my phone connects to Gmail and updates messages 1 and 2.  Assuming I finish the remaining 3 messages with a second of the phone update, it will be 15 minutes before the phone connects again and learns what I did with the messages.

That’s in a perfect world.  Back on Planet Windows, I have seen Gmail sitting in my inbox hours after I have done something with it on either my tablet or laptop.  Hours – and I don’t mean just 60 minutes, I mean 8-9 hours later.

If that was the only issue, it would be bad enough.  Live Tiles are a major selling point for Windows Phone, and this is where the problem becomes worse.  It seems updates to the tiles happens in a rather random fashion, and sometimes not at all.  Even in the exceedingly rare instances when the actual mail client shows an update to the content, it is common for the live tile to show an unchanged mail count.  Back to the example of 5 items in the Gmail inbox: the live tile will continue to show 5 unread messages long after I have disposed of the messages on other devices, leading me to believe that I actually have 5 new messages.  This fact is immediately dispelled when I get into the client, force a sync and see the messages are no longer there.

Email for me is a necessary part of my communication strategy.  And while on the surface it would seem that these are – to varying degrees – minor issues, as a whole they represent a drain on my time that adds up as the number of messages I receive increases.  It seems that Microsoft, the creator of the Exchange email server and ActiveSync message delivery system, has a major fail on its hands when it comes to how their phone operating system handles that mail.  And it may be the issue which causes this experiment to come to a grinding halt.