Jorge Villalobos
Ideas, technology and the occasional rant

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Mail clients and servers are in the stone age

I'm no expert in mail clients or servers, but I have a brain, so here it goes: configuring mail clients sucks donkey balls.
This struck me today, when I was configuring Mozilla Thunderbird to access the university's mail server, so that I wouldn't have to login every time and deal with the almost obligatory ugliness and unfriendliness of webmail interfaces. After a long inspection of the site, I found no references to POP3 or IMAP support, so I had to contact the computer services people to see if there was any. They did, only they gave me a wrong outgoing server name, so I wasn't able to write emails. Since I had a good idea of what was going on, I pinged the server and realized that it didn't exist. I proceeded to contact the computer guys again, and this time they gave me the right configuration. But there's a lot of things that I know, being a geek and all. So, is this something everyone should deal with?
Configuring mail clients to connect to mail servers is just too technical for the average user. I you try to convince someone that it's very practical to use a mail client, he might go with it, but after you start saying things like "POP3", "IMAP" or "incoming server" they will say "You know, I'll keep checking it online". It's too technical. You will usually need to know if it's POP or IMAP, you'll need to know the incoming and outgoing servers, and maybe even the ports. How many people can actually understand this last sentence? There's gotta be a better way.
As usual, Microsoft comes up with some obscure solution, applies it to their software and doesn't let anyone know bout it. Outlook Express can be very easily configured to access Hotmail or MSN accounts. User, password, and you're done. Now, how hard is it to implement this? Not to hard, I think.
A simple solution is to come up with a standard in which mail servers communicate their configuration to the mail client. Lets say I want to access the mail from My mail client should ask me for this: site (, account (, user (jorge) and password. The client then proceeds to contact the site ( for a specific resource, which will provide the configuration that is needed to connect to the mail server. A web service might work, but a little complicated for this case, I think. Maybe a plain text file with a descriptive name. The same there is robots.txt, there could be a mailserver.txt or mailserver.xml. Coming up with the standard is the hardest part, but the improvement would be considerable.
This might be the reason mail clients aren't all that popular. They are typically limited to business or educational environments, in which there's a computer team in charge of configuring the clients for everybody. They are a good tool, but it has all gone to waste because nobody sat down and thought of a friendly way of determining the connection to the server.
Somebody take a step forward and deal with this, please. Our job is to make people's life simpler.

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