Mac OS X’s Mail: Replying to coloured messages

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Mail
March 25th, 2011 • 10:03 am

The other day, I finally got tired of having to deal on a daily basis with a bug that I reported to Apple back in… 2004 (!) and is still not fixed in the latest version of Mac OS X’s Mail available, i.e. version 4.5.

In its “Preferences” dialog, Mail has a feature called “Rules” that allows you to create rules to automatically perform actions on incoming messages that match certain criteria.

One of the actions you can perform on messages is to change the colour of the message viewer:

Colour action

As the screen shot above shows, you can change the colour of either the text or the background for the entire line for the message in the message viewer. If you change the text colour, you get something like this:

Text colour

And if you change the background colour, you get something like this:

Background colour

The problem in Mail is that, if you select a message who text colour has been changed by a rule and then reply to it, as soon as the reply gets sent, the text colour changes back to black.

This problem first appeared back in 2004. I reported it to Apple, and it ended up getting fixed at some point in 2005.

Unfortunately, the bug resurfaced back in 2007, and it’s been with us ever since.

I have submitted several bug reports to Apple, to no avail.

The problem might be partially my fault, in that I didn’t always provide the full details of the situation. In particular, this bug has one particularity: it only affects the text colour, not the background colour.

In other words, if you have a rule that automatically changes the background colour of certain messages, and if you select one such message and reply to it, the background colour will not be lost.

Since one of the default rules that is included by default in Mail when you first launch it in Mac OS X is a rule labelled “Apple Mail” that automatically applies a pale green background colour to messages coming from the apple.com domain name, I suspect that this is as far as Apple’s engineers go when it comes to checking and making sure that the colouring actions in Mail rules work properly. So they do not seem to have noticed the bug described above, which only occurs when you reply to messages whose text colour has been changed by a rule. Or at least they don’t feel that it’s a priority to fix it (to say the least!).

You can restore the message’s text colour after the bug has changed it back to black by re-selecting the message and re-applying the rules (command-option-L), but it’s a tedious process.

For years, I have used various text colours to distinguish between categories of e-mail and make high-priority e-mails (from work contacts) stand out. And so for years I have had to deal with this bug. But last week I finally got tired of having to manually re-apply my text colours, and so I changed my main rule (the one that makes high-priority work e-mails stand out in a specific colour) so that it applies a background colour instead of a text colour.

And now I no longer lose the colour for these important messages when I reply to them.

It’s a small change, but it makes a big difference in my daily work life.

The lesson here appears to be that, when a piece of software that you use has a bug that the developer, for some reason, has failed to fix for several years, there is no point in maintaining a situation where you have to deal with the bug on a daily basis. It’s much more sensible to do your best to work around the problem and make it disappear… into the background.

Unfortunately, there are also many bugs that you cannot work around and so you still have to live with them on a daily basis. But in this particular case, there is a workaround, which simply involves using background colouring rather than text colouring. It certainly makes your message list look “busier,” because a big blob of background colour is significantly more noticeable than a change in text colour, but since the whole point for me in this case is to make the message stand out, I guess I can live with the “busier” look.

Still, I should point out that I submitted yet another bug report about this about a month ago, and got another e-mail back from Apple asking me to provide the bug report numbers for the older bug reports about the same bug. It gave me the opportunity to clarify once and for all that the bug was not about colouring rules in general but only colouring rules that change the text colour. Maybe now that this is absolutely clear, the bug will finally get fixed. But after all these years, I am not holding my breath, and I’d rather live with a change to background colouring in my main rule, so that I no longer have to remember to re-apply the rule to important messages after I reply to them and Mail strips their custom text colour.


One Response to “Mac OS X’s Mail: Replying to coloured messages”

  1. Betalogue » Dumbing down Mac OS X: Lion’s Address Book says:

    [...] use of Mac OS X’s feature set. (They still haven’t fixed the bug that causes some messages to lose their colour when you reply to them either. Unfortunately, contrary to what I wrote in that older blog post, the bug also affects [...]