Spotlight and Mail 2.0: Message searching with or without message preview pane

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Mail
June 28th, 2005 • 2:42 am

I am a long-time Mail user but, ever since I switched to it from Eudora back in 2002, I have maintained the habit of using it without the message preview pane. In other words, my main viewer window in Mail has the list of mailboxes on the left-hand side and then the message list area, which lists the contents of the currently selected mailbox. The preview pane that normally appears below the message list is closed and, when I want to read a message, I double-click on it or hit the Return key to open it in a separate window.

I do this for a couple of reasons. One is that I don’t want messages to become “read” (i.e. lose their “unread” bullet) as soon as I click on them once to select them. If the message preview pane is visible, this is exactly what happens. As soon as you select a message, it is displayed in the message preview pane at the bottom and Mail considers that you’ve read the message — even if you only select the message in passing, by accident.

The other reason is that the message preview area is simply too small for me. I like to be able to see much more of the body of the message at once. Otherwise, there’s just too much scrolling up and down involved for my taste.

In any case, as far as I can tell, Apple fully supports this way of using Mail, since the read/unread behaviour does change as soon as you close the message preview pane. When the pane is closed, simply selecting a message does not mark it as read. You actually have to open the message in order for it to become marked as read. This makes much more sense to me, as I am much less likely to open a message in a separate window by accident.

The problem is that it looks like most Apple engineers do their software design and testing work while using Mail in its default mode, i.e. with the message preview pane visible. This is the only explanation I can see for the problems encountered when trying to search for messages with Spotlight.

If you search for messages using Mail’s built-in search field, as soon as you start typing a search keyword, you get a list of results. This list of search results can have several columns, including “From“, “Subject“, “Date Received“, “Mailbox“, and “Rank“. (The “Rank” column is unique to lists of search results, whereas the other columns are also available when viewing the contents of regular mailboxes.)

The problem is that this gives you a very limited indication of the actual location of the messages found. The “Mailbox” column might indicate the mailbox which contains the message, but gives no indication regarding the actual location of the mailbox itself.

The most intuitive solution here would have been for Apple to include an option in the contextual menu that appears when you control-click on a message in the list of search results, which would give you the full path to the mailbox containing the message. But the contextual menu contains no such thing.

The solution adopted by Apple here is very clearly a “hack”, i.e. something that was added as an afterthought instead of being thought of as part of the design of the message search function in Mail. What happens is that, if you are using Mail with the message preview pane visible, when you select a message in the list of search results, Mail displays the message in the message preview pane, and add a “Show in Mailbox” hypertext link in the top-right corner of the message header.

What is this link? As far as I know, hypertext links are not part of the regular Mac OS X interface. They are only used in the HTML-based Help feature, for hypertext links in help pages. Yet here we have such a link in the top-right corner of the message preview, and this is the only way to determine the exact location of the found message.

When you click on that link, Mail actually makes the mailbox containing the found message visible in the mailbox pane on the left-hand side, by expanding the enclosing mailbox folders, and selects the mailbox in question and shows its contents in the message list pane.

To me, this is a hack. For one thing, once you’ve clicked on the “Show in Mailbox” link for a search result, there is no way back. You cannot return to the list of results to view another found message!

And then there is the problem if, like me, you are not using the message preview pane. If the message preview pane is closed when Mail displays a list of search results, in order to view the contents of a found message, you have to double-click on it or select it and press Return, in order to open the message in a new window. This is normal.

What is not normal is that there is no “Show in Mailbox” hypertext link in the message window! In other words, if you use Mail with the message preview closed, there is no way to view the full path of the found message. The only solution is to make the message preview pane visible. What a pain!

Another solution that Apple could have used for us Mail users who do not use the message preview pane would have been to make it possible to command-click on the title bar of a message window in order to see the path to the message, much in the same way that you can command-click on a document window’s title bar in most Mac OS X applications to view the exact location of the document in question.

But you cannot do this in Mail. When you command-click on a message window’s title bar in Mail, nothing happens!

This was somewhat understandable when mail messages did not exist as individual files, but with Mail 2.0, this is no longer true. Each mail message is an individual file. It could therefore be treated as a document and have the same title bar behaviour as other document windows in Mac OS X. (The only drawback is that Apple uses numeric file names with the “.emlx” extension, and that these individual files are stored inside a “Messages” folder inside your mailbox folder. So the display of the full path when command-clicking in the title bar would have to be adjusted. And selecting one of the items in the path menu would have to open the corresponding mailbox in Mail, and not in the Finder. But it’s nothing that Apple engineers couldn’t tackle if they really put their minds to it.)

So there you have it. Those Mail users who, like me, do not use the message preview pane are being unfairly “punished” for daring to stray away from Mail’s default interface, even though their particular choice of interface is otherwise fully supported.

Interestingly, Apple is using a similar hypertext link when you do a Spotlight search using the global Spotlight menu, and the list of results in the “Show All” window contains mail messages. If you double-click on one of the mail messages that are in the “Mail Messages” section of the “Show All” window to open it in Mail, Mail actually opens it in a separate window with a “Show in Mail Viewer” hypertext link!

Here again, this is an interface “hack” intended primarily for Mail users using the default interface with the message preview pane visible. Clearly Apple’s thinking here is that, when a user double-clicks on a message in a Spotlight search results window, he might want to view the message, but he might not want to lose the focus in the main mail viewer window in Mail in the process. So Apple decided to open the message in a separate window and resort to this hypertext link “hack” to allow users to view the full path to the message if they so desire.

They could have thought of including the same hypertext link when a user double-clicks on a message in the search results list in Mail itself!

I am afraid that this is simply not very elegant. Apple seems to be embarrassed by its own interface choices here. Instead of using standard interface features that Mac users are familiar with, such as command-clicking on a window’s title bar, they are resorting to these proprietary hacks, and they are not even implementing them consistently for all Mail users, regardless of their personal preferences regarding the default Mail interface.

Here’s hoping that this is something that will be remedied soon in a more elegant fashion.

One Response to “Spotlight and Mail 2.0: Message searching with or without message preview pane”

  1. Hawk Wings » Blog Archive » Apple Mail, the preview pane, Spotlight, hyperlinks says:

    […] In a long and interesting post, the writes about using Apple Mail without the Preview Pane, about several foibles in the way Spotlight is used in, about the inconsistent use of hyperlinks in Mail’s interface and about more elegant ways this could have been done. […]

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