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Review: new .Mac webmail delivers, mostly


Apple teased us with an announcement of a .Mac webmail upgrade at the end of September, and yesterday they delivered. The new webmail feels zippy (though it was understandably a little sluggish a couple times while I was testing it last night), and the innovative, refreshing new features raise the bar for competing services. Still, with all the slick new polish, a few long-standing gripes have yet to be addressed, and some of the web client's new abilities bring along irregularities and new complaints. But don't think I'm a hater - I just renewed my membership last week, and this is a most welcomed update to one of the most important components of Apple's hotly debated .Mac suite of web services. With this yin and yang balance in mind, let's dive into the review.

.Mac webmail goes web 2.0
Of course, the most significant and obvious upgrade is the completely revamped UI, which now resembles and behaves (in some ways) like Apple's desktop Mail.app client. As you can see from the screenshot, a new 3 pane view offers a folder list on the left, a customizable (10-50) message list on top, and a message preview pane on the bottom, just like mom used to make. As an added UI bonus, the separation bar between the message list and preview panes is draggable. Nice.

But the webmail update isn't just skin deep - plenty of keyboard shortcuts accompany the new polish for a great combination of beauty and brains (though I'm laying down a penalty of 10 points by not enabling the shortcuts by default, regardless of who .Mac's demographic is). A complete list of shortcuts is linked from the preferences, and there are keys for nearly every action including: sending messages, deleting, navigating up/down messages, back/forth between batches of messages (take that Gmail), searching and printing.

Besides keyboard shortcuts, some clever features and UI tricks are peppered throughout. On the left is a shot of an Address Book search, which lives below the folder list. Results are displayed below the search box, and clicking on a name offers a popup with their information, and things like email addresses and public iDisks are linked for easy access. On the right is the Quick Reply window, accessible by clicking a button which appears next to selected messages (a quirky 'only when you clicked on it' UI element that first reared its head in iTunes 7). Opera's built-in email client has done this for a while, and Apple's implementation is nice and simple.

Address Book came along for the ride, too
Address Book on the web also received an update, as it features a new UI and functionality. Keyboard shortcuts are present here as well, including keys for emailing, editing and deleting contacts. A list view is now accompanied by a grid view (pictured, though blurred to protect my peeps), and the same linking behavior is also present, such as clicking an email address to create a new composition window addressed to the contact.

Am I using Mail.app, or Webmail.app?

An interesting choice from the webmail team in their goal of bringing desktop client UI to the web is the behavior of creating a new message (shortcut: n, as you might imagine). These new messages are created in new windows (in fact I had to give Firefox's popup blocker permission to open my first one), and I actually can't find any way of writing a message in-line, like most traditional webmail UIs (see: Hotmail, Yahoo!, previous .Mac). I'll bet this might be jarring to both traditional users and everything-in-a-tab nuts alike, though it certainly does have that space-age 'hmm, am I using Mail.app, or my browser?' feel to it.

Other desktop functionality has transgressed the web realm, like dragging and dropping messages. Holding shift allows you to select more than one message, and you can then drag them all into a folder. However, being that I'm talking about a browser and not a true-blue email app, this is where the new .Mac webmail experience gets a little lost in translation.

One of these things is not like the other
So far, Apple's done a good job of infusing .Mac's webmail with some serious functionality, but their goal of re-creating the desktop look and feel with some clever web technologies falls short in a few key areas.

The first, which the big G has already pointed out, is the unfortunate boundaries these web technologies are confined in. For example: you can hold shift and select more than one message, but you can't use the arrow keys to make these same selections. Now it's very possible this is a minor point at best (it could be argued this is a practice for the über-email nerds in the crowd), but it's still a good example of all the little behaviors that simply don't translate well from Mac OS X apps to web technologies.

Another more glaring flaw in the new webmail is the lack of rules. Mail.app has a powerful rule system providing users a lot of flexibility for automatically sorting messages. While .Mac syncs these rules between desktop clients, .Mac webmail doesn't utilize them, so all my messages are waiting in my inbox on the web (including junk messages, still), whereas Mail.app would have filed them away like the good little email secretary it is. Now I can understand the limitations of web technologies when it comes to fulfilling some of these features, but I think these issues highlight some significant discrepancies in .Mac's implementation of the 'desktop client on the web' concept. Maybe some of this can happen when web 3.0 (beta) rolls around.

All things considered: nice work, .Mac
Let's face it: no one can please everyone, but this new webmail is pretty hot, considering everything .Mac is up against, like a segmented demographic and high expectations from the nerdier half of it. All in all, I'm pretty satisfied with the new webmail digs, and I'm glad to see Apple putting a strong foot out onto a crowded dance floor with the likes of Gmail and the new Yahoo! Mail Beta which, might I add, has been in 'beta' since, well, the term was invented. The new .Mac webmail is a well-rounded offering, even with a few holes to patch, and I think it'll make most customers at least a little happier they spent that $99 on a membership.

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