The basics of how email works hasn't changed much since its invention, but even forty years later, there are still tiny features and enhancements that can make dealing with large volumes of email easier. Your email client already provides message attachments, filtering, HTML email, auto-fill contacts, spell-checking, folders or labels, keyboard shortcuts, search, and an advanced spam filter. What else do you need? Well, as people rely on email as a primary means of communication, and everyday users deal with a mounting level of new messages per day, even more advanced features can help all of us keep our inbox under control. In honour of Mozilla Thunderbird 3's latest alpha release, let's take a look at some email innovations—some concept, some already available in various clients and plug-ins—that you want in your inbox.
Undo Sent Message
(Concept) At one time or another, all of us have hit the Send button and immediately regretted it. While Gmail offers a nice (and unusual) "Undo" option for most email actions—like labelling messages or archiving them—there's no Undo once you've sent a message. What would be super-useful for those facepalm moments after you've sent a regrettable email is the ability to take it back. Say your client queues up outgoing mail for 10 minutes before sending it (unless you explicitly override the delay to send immediately), and you get the chance to recall sent email every time. Update: There is a way to defer sending messages in Outlook now.
Snooze This Message
Sometimes you just don't need to deal with an email message this very second, but you don't want it cluttering up your inbox or lost in a folder somewhere. Adding a "Snooze button" to your inbox could solve the problem: You hit "Snooze" on a message and it disappears from view—until a day later, when it reappears again, unread and in your inbox, ready for processing.
Reply to Selected Text
(Available in Apple Mail, Eudora and coming in Thunderbird 3)
This one's less an innovation and more a dead simple feature every client should already have. When someone sends you an email with a question or a comment buried in the body, "Reply to Selected Quote" is the feature you want. Just select the quote you want to respond to and hit "Reply to Selected Quote," and your email client clips that text and quotes it, and only it, in your reply.
Smart Reply Templates
(Available in QuickText extension for Thunderbird)
The concept of email templates is as old as the hills, but most implementations are still dumb (or non-existent, especially in web-based mail like Gmail). Smart email templates offer variables that refer to the elements of a message you've already received—like the sender's first and last names, for example. See how the QuickText extension for Thunderbird handles smart reply email templates better.
(Available as an Outlook macro or Greasemonkey script for the old version of Gmail)
So you just wrote this long, explanatory message about the file attached to your email and you send it—without the attachment. Detecting the words "attached" or "attachment" in the body of your email isn't difficult, and it would be nice for an email client to pop up a prompt that says—"Hey, looks like you meant to attach a file to this message" when there's no attachment but the words appear.
(Sort of—but not quite—available in Gmail)
When you only speak certain languages but you receive messages in many others, chances are those messages are spam (or at least messages you don't want to see). Right now, filtering foreign language spam involves searching on specific characters in various languages. But the evolved email client could detect what language a message is in and filter based on that criteria. (For example, in Gmail, to filter all non-English messages you could use
-lang:english, though currently this does not work reliably.)
(Available in the Mail Trends script for Gmail and built into Eudora)
What time of the day do you get the most email? What sender fills up your inbox the most? Who do you send the most messages to? While spam filtering has gotten super-smart over the years, regular usage trending is still not available in most email clients. Since you spend most of your workday in an email client, getting data about what you're putting in and getting out of it can help you use email smarter and more efficiently. See what kinds of trend information Mail Trends for Gmail gave me on my usage.
Faceted Search/Related Messages
(Available in the Seek extension for Thunderbird, RelatedMail add-on for Mail.app, Xobni for Outlook)
Your email inbox and sent mail archive is basically a huge personal database of communication over time, and smart search can help you slice and dice it by topic and sender. While Gmail is ace at helping you pinpoint that one message you're looking for, a few other add-ons offer "faceted search" and statistics about your email relationships. The free Xobni add-on for Outlook is probably the most developed and feature-rich of the current crop of advanced email search products; see how it works here.
Now that you've seen just a few possibilities of the evolved email client, tell us which one you want the most (or have and love).
What did we miss? If you were designing the latest iteration of Thunderbird, what feature would be highest on your list to build in immediately? Let us know in the comments.
Gina Trapani, the editor of Lifehacker, wants her inbox to be like Kanye—better, faster, stronger. Her feature Geek to Live appears every week on Lifehacker.