For Want of a Good Email System

When I first began using email, it was entirely text-based. I used a variant of mh mail beginning in 1994 and every now and then, after trying to do something relatively simple in my current email systems, I long for the days of mh.

Here are some things I miss about the old email system:

  • Simple integration with other tools. For instance, I could easily search my messages using regular expressions. You have to jump through a bunch of hoops to come close to doing that in Apple mail or Outlook today.
  • The ability to have scripts update your .sig file to provide useful information to mail recipients right there in the message signature. (At one point, I had a script update my .sig file with how many unread messages I had in my queue, and an estimate of how long it would be before I read any new incoming messages.)
  • The distraction-free feel of plain-text messages. There is some kind of mathematical relationship between junk mail and a messages markup content. Back in the days when most messages were plain text, it was harder for junk mail to grab someone’s attention.
  • Archiving email was simple. Folders were single plain-text files delimited in clearly documented ways. There were all kinds of tools for parsing mail folders, and for searching and extracting messages.
  • Minimal alerting. No desktop alerts when new mail arrived. No annoying chimes either. You checked your messages when you felt like it. It was more like going to the mail box to collect the day’s mail, rather than checking the new message count every 5 minutes to see if you missed something.

I am surprised that more email clients don’t support Markdown as a plain-text alternative to HTML and RTF email formats. Of course, anyone can type Markdown into a plain-text message, but it would be nice if email clients offered an option to render that Markdown the way some text editors provide a preview mode for Markdown.

I wish I could go back to a system of email like this. I know it is possible in theory, but in practice, I’d be out-of-sync with the rest of the world and I’m not sure how practical that would be.


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