I’ve always regarded webmail as a “last resort” — something to use when you don’t have the option to configure a mail client. Even if I’ve only got 15 minutes of email to do on a strange machine, I’m more likely to spend the 30 seconds it takes to configure an IMAP account than I am to mess with webmail. I hate it that much. But one thing I’ve learned running a hosting business is that I don’t have a lot of company in this department. I keep encountering power users who depend on GMail, Yahoo, etc. It used to surprise me, but I’ve been paying more attention to the options lately.
Sure I can see the advantages of webmail systems, but in my mind, the downside outweighs the upside. I work with a lot of mail, and tend to flip it all over the place – grab 10 non-contiguous messages at a time and drag them to a folder or delete them. Sort via column headers. Forward entire threads as a single message. Mark with colored labels. Set up rules and filters for custom handling, etc. Most webmail systems either don’t support those activities or make them very cumbersome. I hate not having a preview pane, and I really hate that hitting reply always quotes the entire message, not just the bit I’ve selected. Webmail address books tend to suck, and lack integration with the OS. I could go on.
But webmail has changed a lot in the past few years. GMail’s integrated search — and accompanying dismissal of folder-ization — has a lot going for it. But more interesting to me is the Ajax-ification of webmail we’re seeing in webmail clients like Roundcube (which Birdhouse now provides). Suddenly it’s possible to select non-contiguous messages with Cmd-click or Shift-click and drag them into folders, or delete — a huge step forward for webmail. A few days ago, Apple released a new version of .Mac webmail, which takes some of the basic ideas of Roundcube and pushes them to the next level, emulating the Mail.app experience almost completely (it even has a preview pane). However, .Mac webmail still insists on quoting the entirety of a message, rather than just the selected part (I wonder how much webmail as a whole contributes to gross over-quoting?) But webmail is definitely getting more usable than it used to be.
Ajax is quickly enabling web-based apps to emulate the full power of desktop applications. The responsiveness isn’t quite there, but the feature set is catching up. If the trend continues, I can imagine myself spending more time in webmail before long, though I still like the idea of having a master repository on a drive I control.