for this first issue of Walled Garden, my infrequent newsletter on Apple, its products and the ecosystem, I would like to speculate on plans Apple might have for email. If you want to be sure to not miss my upcoming issues, please subscribe.
With the WWDC approaching, it's fair game to speculate. More specifically, what I want to speculate about are the plans Apple might have for its stock Mail app.
Mail.app is, in my opinion, a solid email client, especially on macOS. It has a lot of basic but also more advanced features such as rules. For the most part, Mail.app has not really evolved for the past 5 or even 10 years. Features such as snooze or send later are notably absent even though they are getting increasingly common on other email clients. And Mail.app on iOS is really just a scale-down version of Mail.app on iOS, missing a lot of powerful features found on its desktop cousin.
Does it mean that Apple has no plans for Mail.app, though? I don't have any insider information, a lot of what follows is speculation. But I do think Apple can have a couple of good reasons to revamp Mail.app — on macOS and on iOS.
Based on how little Mail.app progressed in the past, the most reasonable analysis would be that Apple has no specific plans for Mail.app. In this scenario, they would basically maintain Mail.app in its current state, providing a decent while rather basic experience, at least on iOS. But I'm not completely convinced it's the most likely scenario — for at least three reasons.
The first reason is that despite an apparent lack of interest for Mail.app, Apple has actually regularly added new features. Things such as tokenized search, Mail Drop, iCloud Drive syncing of rules between macOS Mail.app — and more recently, Hide my email. While it's true that Mail.app hasn't received any major new features, it's clear that Apple still has the app on its radar.
The second reason is that an apparent stagnation of an app doesn't always predict well how it'll evolve in the future. The best example of that is Reminders. A couple of years ago, Reminders was an extremely basic task manager. In just a couple of years, it has become a solid offering — going way beyond its apparent stagnation would have suggested. And I wouldn't be surprised that Apple keeps adding new features to Reminders this year and in the upcoming years.
What happened to Reminders can definitely also happen to Mail.app.
The third reason is that Apple hasn't given up on email as a whole. Quite the contrary to be honest. First, they added Hide My Email last year. But they kept everybody by surprised when they added custom domain names as part of the revamped iCloud+ plan. Who would have expected that? Not me at the very least.
So what could Apple do in the near (and not so near) future about Mail.app? It's here where the speculation begins.
My first speculation is on the technical side. Reminders got this unexpected trajectory thanks to the new stack of technologies Apple has been building for the past couple of years such as Catalyst and SwiftUI. The main issue, it seems, is that it's costly and complicated to build two separate codebases — one for iOS, one for macOS. A unified framework has done wonders for Reminders, and it could too for Mail.app.
That being said, an email client is a completely different beast than a "simple" task manager — even though Reminders has overgrown its "simple task manager" status, a task manager is still a glorified list of tasks. When it comes to email clients, you have IMAP, you have SMTP, you have bizarre and custom implementations of both (hello Gmail). You have drafts, you have rules, you have smart mailboxes — and so on. And not only that, but the user experience has to stay consistent between iOS and macOS. Which is, to say the least, easier said than done.
I don't want to make predictions, and I won't. I would just say that it's probably likelier that if Apple is working on a unified Mail.app across iOS and macOS, it won't ship now but rather in a couple of years. SwiftUI is probably still too immature yet.
My second speculation is on the user experience side. As I wrote above, Mail.app is really lagging compared to other, more recent email clients. Snooze. Send later. Manually filtering who can enter your mailbox (such as in Big Mail). Or a streamlined view for newsletters (also a place where Big Mail shines). All of this makes a compelling argument to offer an off-the-shelf email experience that is significantly better than the current one. And as we have seen with Passwords and (once again) Reminders, Apple is really capable of turning a fairly basic feature or app into something much more powerful in just a couple of iterations.
My third speculation is to bring feature parity between iOS and macOS. So far, the iOS version is severely lagging. No Smart mailboxes, no rules are two major limitations. A new, revamped Mail.app with a common code base between iOS and macOS would greatly benefit the iOS version — and allow Apple to add new features on both platforms more easily in the future.
If adding features on both iOS and macOS is technically difficult, it could explain why Apple has only the simplest ones during the last couple of years. But an iOS version of Mail.app with Smart mailboxes would be terrific for me — and even more if the Smart mailboxes sync with the macOS version.
Bringing feature parity between iOS and macOS would make even more sense now that Apple is working hard to make the iPad a more powerful and pro-oriented platform. A powerful and pro-oriented platform needs a powerful mail client — which the iOS version of Mail.app is currently not.
My fourth speculation is related to iCloud+. A new, iCloud-centered Mail.app would make a lot of sense as Apple is beefing up iCloud Mail. Rules could sync between icloud.com and Mail.app (as they do with Microsoft Outlook with Exchange mailboxes), iCloud+ subscribers could manage their custom domain directly into Mail.app, and so on. Apple is really not a browser-based company, so it would make sense to repatriate at least some of iCloud Mail's features from the browser to Mail.app — with the browser being a fallback option.
Turning Mail.app into a more iCloud-centric app wouldn't necessarily lead to a Mail.app that is exclusively iCloud-centric. Look, once again, at Reminders: sure, Reminders is at its best when used with iCloud, but Reminders is still a decent CalDAV client for tasks. Apple could go with a similar trajectory with Mail.app.
Personally, I absolutely hate webmails — and working in the browser more generally. Mail.app is my go-to email client and I like it a lot — on macOS. It's not grand or anything, but it does the job decently well. But it could really do it even better with a couple of new, more modern features. And iOS would really benefit from a beefed-up version.
Once again, this issue is rather speculative but I do think there is an argument that Apple might at least have an interest to invest more in Mail.app. It would make a lot of sense, but by no means it's assured that we'll have a state-of-the-art email client in the next two or three major iOS and macOS releases. It would be nice for sure, but "nice" and "likely to happen" are definitely not synonyms.
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