Mac OS X’s Mail: Why it needs to support mailbox aliases

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Mail
March 29th, 2005 • 6:23 am

I have already discussed here the need for major improvements to Mac OS X’s Mail application, especially when it comes to very simple, repetitive tasks like archiving mail.

Today I’d like to explain why I think mailbox folder aliases would be an important improvement.

I know there are people out there who do not archive their e-mail at all. Those people leave their messages in their Inbox forever — and delete them when they feel they don’t need them any longer.

I am not like that. For example, I do a fair amount of on-line shopping, and most of the on-line stores I buy stuff from send me sales receipts or invoices by e-mail. I want to archive these receipts and I don’t particularly want to waste paper if I don’t have to, so I don’t print them. I just archive them in a series of mailboxes inside my “Shopping” mailbox folder. I frequently back up my entire Mail folder, so I have multiple copies of these archived messages.

I also conduct a fair amount of my free-lance translation/web design/computer tech support business via e-mail. I have never had any major problems with that, but I still want to be sure I have kept copies of all the important work e-mail I have sent or received, in case I ever encounter a problem with someone claiming I didn’t deliver this or that, or other possible misunderstandings. In addition, it is quite useful to have a searchable archive of older correspondence, but it often contains useful bits of information that I need again in related work activities later on.

Finally, today’s hard drives are huge and there is absolutely no reason not to keep archives of stuff that doesn’t take up much room. E-mail is mostly text and text takes up very little room on a hard drive. And Mail lets you remove non-textual and redundant attachments from sent or received e-mails before archiving them.

For all these reasons, I — like many other Mac users, I suspect — have a pretty large archive of older e-mail messages in Mac OS X’s Mail. And because this archive is pretty large, it needs to be organized in folders and subfolders.

What will this folder hierarchy look like? Every person is different, but I suspect that a lot of people use something similar to what I use, i.e. a hierarchy whose first level consists of folders such as these:


Inside these main folders, I have subfolders, which in turn might contain subfolders, etc. For the “Family” and “Friends” folders, the hierarchy doesn’t go very deep, because the number of family members and friends with whom you might have a regular e-mail correspondence is necessarily limited.

But for other folders, the hierarchy might go quite deep. In my work folder, for example, I have subfolders for “Federal Government” and “Provincial Government“. In the “Provincial Government” folder, I have subfolders for each department. And in each department’s folder, I have subfolders for each branch. Etc.

Of course, I do not work for all kinds of different people all the time. But the key thing to understand here is that the people I work with often have a position that corresponds to a folder that is several levels deep inside my mailbox folder hierarchy. This means that, every time I get a message from one of these people and I want to archive it, I have to browse through several different folders and subfolders because I can finally reach the desired destination.

And that’s why I would like mailbox folder aliases. The folder aliases in the Finder provide the user with shortcuts to specific folders buried deep inside the user’s hard drive. Similarly, mailbox folder aliases in Mail would provide the user with direct access to specific mailbox folders that are buried deep inside his mailbox folder hierarchy.

Some people might argue that aliases are not really necessary, that all I have to do when I have a mailbox that I need to access to often is to put it at the root level in my mailbox archive, instead of burying it several levels deep inside the archive. If I only need to access the mailbox frequently during a certain period of time — the time during which I work on a specific project, for example — then all I need to do is to move the mailbox in question to the top level of the archive, and then move it back inside the archive when the project is finished.

The problem is first that this goes against my natural inclination, which is to keep things well organized. I think that a system that does not work very well when you keep things properly organized is a badly designed system. There are all kinds of reasons why I like to keep things well organized. It makes it easier for me to find things. It makes it easier for me to refresh my memory about the positions of the people I work with over time. It allows me to back up specific sections of my e-mail archive. Etc.

In a way, asking me to move mailboxes out of their natural place and put them at the root level of my mailbox archive is like asking a Mac user to put the files that he’s working on on the desktop. It works, but it’s not a very good idea, for all kinds of reasons that Mac users are familiar with. The desktop can quickly become a very messy place. It makes it harder to find things. It makes it harder to create back ups. Etc.

In addition, the Finder itself comes with aliases. Mail’s mailbox archive operates much like a hard drive volume in the Finder. It even uses the same folder icons and the same hierarchical list view! So the analogy is clearly there — which means that there is an analogous need for aliases.

Still, providing a mailbox alias feature in Mail undoubtedly poses a number of challenges. For one thing, there is nothing equivalent to the Finder’s desktop in Mail. The closest to it is the root level of the mailbox archive — but that is not a clearly defined “space”. Still, in the Finder the user is allowed to put aliases wherever he likes. Similarly, in Mail, the user should be allowed to put mailbox aliases wherever he likes.

My idea would be not only to provide mailbox aliases, but also a “Favorites” mailbox at the root level in the mailbox drawer that will operate much like the “Favorites” folder in the user’s home library in the Finder. It would have the same icon with a heart symbol that you get when you add your home library’s “Favorites” folder to your Sidebar in the Finder. And it would be a mailbox in which you can put aliases to your favorite mailboxes.

These favorites would also appear at the root level of the “Move To” and “Copy To” menus that can be accessed either through Mail’s “Message” menu or through the contextual menu that pops up when you control-click on a message.

I am afraid the “Smart Mailboxes” in Tiger’s Mail will not address this issue at all. They are a totally different thing. They are effectively a fancy search tool, and they have nothing to do with moving/archiving mail messages.

For people like me, who archive most of their e-mail correspondence, archiving e-mail messages is a regular activity repeated multiple times daily. Apple should really put some effort into making this activity as easy as possible for the user. Just as the Finder needs folder aliases, Mail needs mailbox folder aliases. It’s as simple as that.

I am still waiting.

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