Simplifying Email

atsignAs web workers, we are often asked to help friends and relatives fix computer problems. For me, the majority of these problems seem to be related to email. It’s ironic, as email is now less popular than social networks.

So why is email such a hassle?

  • It’s more than 30 years old. Email has come a long way, but its underlying protocols haven’t changed much since the 1970s.
  • It’s really three different systems. Sending (SMTP) and receiving (POP or IMAP) are totally separate functions, and are often handled on different servers. That’s why I often hear comments like “I can receive, but I can’t send” from clients.
  • It’s being used for a lot of things it was never designed to do, like send images and attachments, highly formatted messages, signatures and calendar entries.
  • It’s been overrun by spam, and even well-designed spam filters aren’t perfect, and cause unwanted side effects, like messages that get misidentified as spam, or just go away.
  • Email software is too complex. These programs that were originally built for offline use; that is, they were set up so that users could read and write messages without being connected to the internet. Sending and receiving would happen in batches. That made sense when internet connections were slow, expensive and charged by the minute. Now that most people have always-on connections like cable or DSL, that process is less necessary. Desktop email client software is a pain to set up and use; as someone who helps many people with email, Outlook is the bane of my existence.
  • Many of us connect to the Internet in more than one place — at work, at home, and on cell phones. It can be very frustrating to realize that we’ve left the message we needed to reply to at the office.
  • Many of us have more than one email address. I try to keep my work and personal email separate, plus I have a series of email addresses that I use when registering on websites that might try to send spam. And I have several email addresses that were given to me, such as the ones that are automatically created when signing up for instant-messaging services like Yahoo, AIM and Windows Live/MSN.

What can be done to overcome these problems? Here are some tips that might help you and your clients and friends be more productive.

  • Get your email on the web. Dump your desktop email software, and switch to Gmail/Google Apps or another online provider like Yahoo. If your Internet connection is unreliable, Google Gears lets you work offline.
  • Create a master inbox. If you have multiple email accounts, you can set up forwarding to receive and send email from one place.
  • Use IMAP. If you need mobile access to your email, set up your phone software to use IMAP, not POP. By using IMAP, your messages will sync automatically in all of the places you check your mail.
  • Use social networks. It seems like all of my friends under 30 don’t do email anymore, but they’re on Facebook a lot.
  • Use instant messaging. For short, simple conversations, IM can be very efficient. In a few seconds, you can schedule a meeting or a lunch date. It’s much faster than email or phone conversations.
  • Use file-sharing services for sending large documents. There are lots of such services, and new ones are popping up all the time, including Fluxiom and FileShareHQ. And Dropbox and the new Opera Unite service allow you to share files directly from your computer.
  • Organize your electronic communications. Celine wrote about this recently, and I’ve talked about it, too.

Oh, and one more:

  • Remember your passwords. This is obvious to you and me, but I’ve heard “I didn’t know I had a password” way too often. Online services like LastPass, or programs like 1Password, SplashID, or the free KeePass (Windows and phones; also available for Mac and Linux) can be lifesavers.

How do you keep email simple?

Image by stock.xchng user chris27.

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