Panther’s Mail: Not in sync with Address Book from user point of view

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
March 15th, 2004 • 5:42 am

When it comes to using Mac OS X’s Mail application in conjunction with the Address Book application, things work reasonably well. But there is one aspect of people’s way of organizing their archived mail messages that Apple could easily make more convenient for the end user.

In many situations, it makes sense to put one’s Address Book entries (or “cards”) in groups. For example, I have a group called “Family”, in which I put all my family members, a group called “Friends”, in which I put all my friends, a group called “Work”, etc. (Actually, my group structure is a bit more complicated. More on that below.)

Some of these people don’t have an email address, and for these people I use Address Book to store their mailing address and telephone number. But most people I know these days also have at least one email address.

In the Mail application, I archive all my mail messages, whether they come from family, friends, or work colleagues. Quite naturally, my mailbox structure for archiving message is pretty much a mirror image of my group structure in Address Book. In my mailbox drawer in Mail, I have a mailbox folder called “Family”, which contains mailboxes for each and every family member, a mailbox folder called “Friends”, which contains mailboxes for each and every one of my friends, a mailbox folder called “Work”, etc.

This means that, in most cases, whenever I want to add a new person to one of my groups of addresses in Address Book, I also want to create a new mailbox for that person in the corresponding mailbox folder in Mail.

Yet Mac OS X is not smart enough to know that. This means that, once I have entered the data for the new person’s Address Book card, I have to switch to Mail, navigate down my hierarchy of mailbox folders, and create a new mailbox for that person, for whose name I normally use the first name and last name of the person in question, in the format “LAST NAME First Name”.

In other words, I have to type the same information (first name and last name) twice: once in Address Book, and another time in Mail. And I have to indicate that person’s position in the hierarchy twice: once in Address Book’s groups, and another time in Mail’s mailboxes.

Interestingly, about half of the time I add a new person to my Address Book, I forget to add a mailbox for this person at the same time in Mail. Then later on when decide to file away that person’s messages, I select the messages in my In box, go to the “Move To” submenu, browse down the hierarchy of folders and… realize that I forgot to create a mailbox for this person. Then I have to exit the “Move To” submenu, go to the mailbox drawer, browse down the hierarchy yet again, and then create the new mailbox, then go back to the “Move To” submenu, browse down the hierarchy (for the third time!), and finally move the messages.


It seems to me that Apple could make things easier for us. It could, for example, when you add a new person with an email address in a specific group in your Address Book, ask you if you want to add a mailbox (called “LAST NAME First Name” by default) to the corresponding mailbox folder in Mail.

The other thing that Apple could do is finally offer the option to create subgroups in Address Book! A single-level hierarchy is simply not good enough. For example, my “Work” group contains hundreds of entries, that I want to subdivide into subgroups, in particular for e-mail filtering purposes. I cannot do that in Address Book. So I have about two dozen groups that are named “Work” followed by a dash and then the name of the subgroup (as in “Work – Designers” or “Work – Translators”). I also have a generic “Work” group for people who don’t fit in any of the subgroups.

I know that Address Book lets you add a group to another group. (Just drag the “stack” icon for the group onto another group.) And I use that to “mimic” a group hierarchy architecture (and it works for filtering purposes, meaning that if I have an e-mail filter in Mail that matches members of the Address Book group “Work” and if the group “Work” in Address Book contains a reference to the group “Work – Designers”, then the filter will be applied to e-mail messages coming from members of “Work – Designers”, even though they are not members of the group “Work” individually).

But it is still a very clumsy way of doing things. In order to enable the user to have a group hierarchy in Address Book that more closely resembles his mailbox hierarchy in Mail, Apple needs to let the user create a multiple-level group hierarchy in Address Book. And I really hope we don’t have to wait until Mac OS X 10.4 for this!

The bottom-line here is that there are still fundamental aspects of Mail and Address Book that could easily be enhanced to more closely match the diversity of users’ needs.

4 Responses to “Panther’s Mail: Not in sync with Address Book from user point of view”

  1. Pierre Igot says:

    Will: I certainly wouldn’t make it a modal thing that cannot be turned off. Maybe a checkbox somewhere (turned off by default) would be more appropriate.

    My filters do not file away new mail. They only colour it in different ways depending on which group the sender belongs to. For this, AB’s groups are indispensable to me. (I also get Mail to play a different sound depending on which group the mail sender belongs to.)

    I am not sure I entirely agree with your assertion that Apple doesn’t have enough resources to enhance the “free” applications. It is true that Apple has been very inconsistent in adding improvements to the various applications, but Mail and iTunes are two examples of applications that are rather powerful.

    Basically, what prompted me to write about this possible improvement for AB/Mail is not only my own personal needs, but also the fact that my wife, whom I moved from Eudora to AB/Mail when I upgraded her laptop to Panther, asked me exactly the same thing when she started adding entries to her “Family” group in AB: “Does this automatically create a new mailbox in Mail in my ‘Family’ folder?” Of course, I had to tell her that it doesn’t.

    Even if Apple doesn’t implement such a feature, they can still easily improve the process of creating new mailboxes in Mail, in order to spare the user the need to browse down the hierarchy repeatedly, as I’ve described above. Eudora has a good solution for this, where every submenu when you’re browsing the mailbox hierarchy via the “Transfer” menu has a “New…” menu item that lets you create a new mailbox in the same location (and then transfer your selected mail to it). Apple would do well to copy some Eudora features…

  2. Will says:

    I disagree with you in a small way here, Pierre. Your feature request as it stands would have no benefit to anyone who did not follow your exact mailbox structure, so having a dialog box that asked you if you wanted to do something you don’t want to do would be quite annoying.

    (Let me finish…)

    In principle, however, I agree with you. I don’t bother with Address Book groups because I always forget to put people in there. It would be great if (like Safari’s bookmarks) you were asked where exactly you wanted to file your new Contact when it was created in the address book. Moreover, (in solution to your problem) there could be an option to sync (without confirmation) Mail’s folders with Address Book’s groups. The fact that Mail doesn’t report new mail if it’s moved to a folder other than an inbox makes the whole situation irritating for auto-sort filters, however.

    In summary, it would be great if:
    – Contacts were sorted on creation
    – Mail folders were synchronised with Contact groups
    – Incoming mail was sorted automatically in the appropriate folders
    – Sent mail could also be sorted in the same way
    – All unread mail was also displayed in a “smart folder” (a la iTunes) at the top level of the heirarchy

    Unfortunately, I personally believe Apple’s resources are spread too thin to produce any free apps that are comprehensively easy to use AND powerful. iPhoto is a very good example of this. It has only now (with iLife ’04) become fast enough to use casually, and yet it lacks things like a search field (!!! Creating a new smart album is most certainly no solution!). It too has only one level of heirarchy in its albums. You’d think no-one who writes these programs actually uses them, sometimes. The Finder itself is another example of an application that should be perfect, but isn’t.

  3. Will says:

    You make good points, as always, but Mail and iTunes are two of Apple’s oldest applications in the category we’re talking about. What I should have said was that adding features that make programs a lot more convenient, or even optimising for speed half the time, is something Apple does quite slowly. Perhaps my expectations of them are inordinately high :)

    I mentioned the Mail sorting feature because if emails were sorted as it arrived and all unread messages lumped together, you wouldn’t have to move your emails much at all, removing your dilemma! Actually, now I think of it, a toolbar button called “File” which moved emails to their “proper” places would be more convenient…

    I don’t know what I’m saying. I use Mail every day, and I find it quite adequate for my needs almost always. I’m just throwing some ideas around because I think the whole situation has room for innovation, but I’m not a developer enough (or at all!) to do anything about it.

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Yes, there’s definitely a lot of room for innovation, in all of Apple’s consumer/prosumer applications, including veterans such as iTunes and Mail. I like your idea of a “File” button (although it should probably be called something else!) that would be smart enough to know that I always want to file messages from X in mailbox Y, messages from A in mailbox B, etc. Something like a user-configurable “Archive” command, in a way. (The configuration would be similar to defining a set of filter rules, except that these archiving rules would only be applied manually by the user by invoking the “Archive” command.) Of course, your approach (filing them right away and just displaying them automatically as long as they are unread) is valid as well, but would probably require more significant architectural changes.

    Speed optimizations are also an issue. Mail 1.2 was rather slow under Jaguar, and only since 1.3 is it really performing adequately (although there’s still room for improvement!). I gave up on iPhoto a long time ago. Even if it’s faster now, it still isn’t fast enough or able to handle enough pictures (we need something that can easily handle tens of thousands). I just use it to automatically create albums to share with other people, but not as my main photo storage tool.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.