Apple’s tech note about missing messages in Mail

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh, Mail
June 13th, 2006 • 9:28 am

Apple recently posted a new article in their tech support database regarding the problem that occurs when some messages in Mail appear to be missing even though you didn’t delete them or Mail appears unable to display the contents of a message and instead shows an error message reading “Message has not been downloaded from the server, take this account online to view.”

This is not an uncommon occurrence. I saw the problem several times while I was testing beta versions of OS X 10.4 as part of the AppleSeed program, and the main troubleshooting step mentioned in the article (trashing the “Envelope Index” file and relaunching Mail) is something that I was forced to discover by myself at the time.

I find this particular tech note to be particularly interesting, because there are many aspects of it that are very wrong and indicative of a rather user-hostile attitude at Apple these days. In this post I’d like to highlight some of what I think are the worst aspects of this tech note.

My first problem is with this paragraph:

You should also use these steps if this error message appears when you try to open a message:
“Message has not been downloaded from the server, take this account online to view.”

The paragraph is factually correct, i.e. this is indeed the error message that sometimes appears in italics when you try to view a message in Mail. My problem is that it is quite clear that the error message itself is completely wrong and, indeed, the troubleshooting steps suggested by Apple in the tech note do confirm that the problem is not that the message “has not been downloaded from the server.” And it is also completely irresponsible to ask the user to take the account online. In my experience, the error message appears for accounts that are already online, and changing the online/offline status of the account doesn’t change anything anyway.

What bothers me is that, in this tech note, Apple completely fails to acknowledge that the error message is completely wrong and misleading, and does not give any indication that the error message will ever be changed to more accurately reflect what the problem actually is.

It really irks me when a computer displays a completely misleading error message that bears no relation at all to the actual problem. And the fact that, in this tech note, Apple treats the situation as if it were perfectly normal for a computer to display a completely erroneous error message really bothers me. Apple should at the very least openly acknowledge that the error message is wrong and that taking your account online doesn’t fix anything.

Then there is the solution, described in a number of steps that can be taken.

The first step has to do with rebuilding the mailbox, which is something that can be done through the regular Mail user interface. (There is a “Rebuild” command in Mail.) In my experience, when the problem occurs, rebuilding the mailbox doesn’t help.

The next step is the big one (“Reindex all messages”), and it comes with a number of steps itself. Here’s the second step:

b. In the Finder, choose Go To Folder from the Go menu, and go to ~/Library/Mail/ .
Or, choose Home from the Go menu, then open the Library folder, then open the Mail folder.

Correct me if I am wrong, but does any self-respecting Mac user actually use the “Go To Folder” command in the Finder’s “Go” menu to browse to a folder in a Finder window?

This “Go To Folder” command is some kind of leftover Unix command that lets you access a folder using its Unix path. How on earth has this particularly unintuitive way of browsing to a given destination in your hard drive become the approach that Apple suggests first in its tech notes?

Granted, they do mention an alternative, but even that alternative still involves the “Go” menu, as if the Finder Sidebar didn’t exist, as if normal Mac users used the “Go” menu on a regular basis to access files or folders on their hard drives. It’s as if the entire visual/spatial metaphor of the Finder was something that should be bypassed or used as little as possible.

I find this rather insulting for the average Mac user. It seems to imply that using the “Go” menu is, somehow, the “proper” way of accessing files and folders in Mac OS X. I have been using Macs for nearly twenty years. I have been providing support to dozens of Mac users. I have never seen a single one of them use the “Go” menu to access stuff on his hard drive.

I have no doubt that there are actually some Mac users out there who do use this menu. But for this approach to be the default one suggested/recommended by Apple in such a tech note, you really have no choice but to believe that the people writing these tech notes have some kind of superiority complex and are determined to enforce Unix-y ways of doing things on the “rest of us.”

Strangely enough, the next step is:

c. Move the Envelope Index file to a different location, such as your desktop.

At that stage, I almost expected Apple to ask us to fire up Terminal and type in a mv command! All of a sudden, they’ve decided to acknowledge that the Mac OS X desktop is a visual metaphor after all, and are allowing you to move stuff, you know, like, spatially. On your desktop! Amazing!

I find it a bit problematic that Apple uses file names such as “Envelope Index” here without quotation marks around them. It’s a bit confusing, because the only thing that distinguishes the file name from the rest of the text is the capitalization, which is not exactly a strong indication that what you are reading is an actual file name. But that’s a minor issue—and I suppose that Apple have adopted some conventions in that respect that they are simply following here.

Step d. simply confirms what is otherwise implied in the tech note, which is that this whole business about messages not having been downloaded properly and asking us to take our account online actually has to do with IMAP and Mac accounts (as opposed to POP accounts), which work by keeping your local mailboxes in sync with a remote mail server. This clearly is where the error message comes from, and it is quite possible that, in some cases, for people using IMAP accounts or using their .Mac account as an IMAP account, the error can actually be fixed by taking your account online.

Again, however, there is no open acknowledgement that this is where the error message itself comes from. And Apple also fails to acknowledge that, in the case of people using POP accounts exclusively (like me), the error message is completely irrelevant and wrong.

Then there is the third suggestion, in case the first two fail to fix the problem:

3. If the account uses POP, try reimporting the problematic mailbox as a “Mail for Mac OS X” mailbox. You can import from your mailboxes in ~/Library/Mail/account name, where account name is the style and name of your account, “POP-Mac,” for example.

Now this is where the user hostility reaches its peak. First of all, look at how they describe POP accounts: They say, “If the account uses POP…” Uses POP? Who on earth talks like that when describing e-mail accounts? Only hard core technicians who make no effort to speak to ordinary users without using jargon. Do ordinary users really know what “POP” stands for and that it is actually a protocol that is indeed used by the e-mail client to communicate with the mail server? (“POP” stands for “Post Office Protocol.”)

I am sorry, but ordinary users have no idea what “POP” means, and the only thing that they know, if they know anything at all, is that there are two types of e-mail accounts, IMAP accounts and POP accounts. So maybe it would be acceptable here to say something like, “If the account for which messages are missing is a POP account…” But saying “If the account uses POP…” is just a sure-fire way to confuse users (not to mention that the only place in the Mail UI that mentions the protocol is the account settings under “Preferences…”).

And then in the same paragraph Apple manages to use yet another way to describe the type of account: “where account name is the style and name of your account, ‘POP-Mac,’ for example…

So now POP is a “style” of account? Good Lord. The writer of this tech note does not even manage to be user-hostile in a consistent way. Who on earth describes POP and IMAP as being styles of e-mail accounts? Even Mail’s own preferences dialog uses the phrase “Account Type,” not “Account Style.”

We are not done yet. Here’s the next suggestion or “tip”:

Tip: Remember to select the folder that contains your mailbox, not the mailbox itself. For example, you would select the ~/Library/Mail/POP-account name folder.

This has long been a pet peeve of mine. The process for importing mailboxes in Mail is utterly confusing. It uses a standard “Open File” type of dialog box to select the mailboxes you want to import, but it actually ignores the items that you select in the file list and tries to import the entire contents of the enclosing folder instead! This effectively means that, half of the time, when you try to import a mailbox or a selection of mailboxes, you end up with a list of mailboxes that doesn’t match your selection, or alternatively Mail tells you that there are no valid mailboxes to import. It drives me nuts!

I like the way that Apple says, “Remember to…,” as if this were something that was well-known and intuitive and people just had to be reminded of it. On the contrary, it’s an utterly confusing interface, and Apple’s engineers simply cannot be bothered to fix it or replace it with a more intuitive one, so they have to include such “tips” in their tech notes just to warn people that things do not work as expected, but without ever admitting that this is abnormal and really should be fixed.

And then there is the cherry on the cake:

If this doesn’t help for a POP account, try importing as type “Other” instead of “Mail for Mac OS X”. Select the mailbox itself (for example: ~/Library/Mail/POP-account name/Inbox.mbox).

So now we are being told that we should actually try to import mailboxes created by Mail for Mac OS X using the “Other” option instead of the “Mail for Mac OS X” option! And then of course we have to select the mailbox itself this time! Argh!

The whole tech note is a disgrace. This is the kind of stuff that I would expect to find on a third-party troubleshooting site for troubleshooting experts, but not on the official Apple site! The very fact that Apple presents all these facts in this tech note as being perfectly normal and just things that we should be gently reminded of is fundamentally insulting.

Ordinary users should never have to delve inside their ~/Library/Mail/ folder to begin with. This is behind-the-scenes stuff that the user is not supposed to see. If Mail is bad enough that the only way to fix its problems is to delve inside that folder and manually remove files with exotic names such as “Envelope Index,” then there is something fundamentally wrong with Mail itself.

But then, based on this tech note, there is also something fundamentally wrong with Apple itself. POP and IMAP are not “styles” of e-mail accounts. They are types of e-mail accounts. And if the user needs to know the difference between the two types, then it needs to be explained much more clearly, in the user interface itself. In addition, ordinary Mac users do not use the “Go To Folder” command in the “Go” menu to access their files or folders in the Finder. And they certainly don’t expect an application to ignore the file that they have selected in an “Open File” type of dialog box and select the enclosing folder instead!

This is just so irritating. Apple is supposed to be the user-friendly company. Everyone uses e-mail. Mail is Mac OS X’s e-mail application. It should be designed for “the rest of us” and, if errors are unavoidable, then at least the user should be able to fix them from within the application itself, without having to expose the guts of his system.

No wonder people never use Apple’s help features and phone me instead when they have a problem. I am a professional “translator” in more ways than one. And, based on this particular tech note recently posted by Apple, it doesn’t look like I’ll be out of a job any time soon.

6 Responses to “Apple’s tech note about missing messages in Mail”

  1. ssp says:

    1. Judging from the behaviour I’ve seen from Apple so far _I_ would be completely surprised if they admitted _any_ problem with their hard or software. They may have a massive database of ‘hints’ for solving problems caused by their buggy software but each one of them reads like they’re the good guys here who help you out of some difficult situation which you managed to get into somehow. (And of course it’s your fault… nobody forced you to use Apple’s software after all). Denial is it in this situation.

    2. Error messages _are_ a hard thing. And I doubt that programmers will ever be able to cover all possible errors adequately. (When tinkering with iTunes’ resources, for example, and accidentally breaking them in the process, I got an ‘not enough memory to launch iTunes’ message when launching the application the next time. Obviously this was easy to understand for me in my situation, but it is a _real_ error giving a misleading message.)

    3. The Go Menu: I suspect that this may be less a fondness of Unix-style clunkiness but rather a consequence of the whole Finder having become highly illogical and unpredictable. There are so many different ways to set up your Finder and so many different way for it to display its windows – which can change from folder to folder depending on what you did before – that using the Go to Folder command may actually be the most straightforward and just works™ way to describe these steps to people.

    3a. I use the Go To Folder command quite regularly btw. To go to the /tmp folder for example. Way better than having to open a Terminal and type open /tmp.

  2. Andrew Aitken says:

    This is not one of the worst kbase articles on the Apple kbase. It’s not perfect, and could do with a bit of a re-write, along the lines you suggest – but it’s not the worst I’ve seen.

    On the whole, Apple’s kbase articles are usually pretty good. Dantz’s Extensis’s and Quark’s kbases are much worse. It is nigh on impossible to find things in the Microsoft kbase, and are usually extremely technical when you find them.

    Using the “Go” menu is the easiest way to get people where they need to be, with the minimum amount of fuss. These tech notes have to be relevant to the lowest common denominator – in this case, the “hard of understanding”

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Yes, there is something to be said for the “straightforwardness” of accessing files or folders through the “Go” menu. But it makes you wonder: How did Apple provide tech support in the good old days of the classic Mac OS? Back then, the Finder was purely spatial, and they had no choice but to guide users using spatial terms and instructions. Like ssp said, the only real reason why they have to use the “Go” menu here today is that the rest of the Finder has become such a mess.

    I agree that the “Go To Folder” command is useful to access normally invisible folders, but that’s a pretty specialized requirement. The average user is not really supposed to access invisible folders.

    I tend to avoid comparing Apple’s tech notes to the competition. It’s just too depressing :).

    I still feel that this tech note is particularly bad, because the error that it describes and supposedly helps you solve can happen to anyone who uses Mail, i.e. just about any kind of user.

  4. Hawk Wings » Blog Archive » Missing messages muddle in Apple technote says:

    […] And he does. Have a read . […]

  5. DuckFOO says:

    I use Go To Folder frequently. It is a great way to access hidden porn!

    go to ~/.porn.noindex

    The inital period keeps the folder from being seen in the Finder and the .noindex extention on the folder keeps Spotlight from index it’s contents. Woohoo!

  6. deej says:


    I’ve been a loyal Apple guy since the 80s (I still have a functioning Apple IIe along with lots of other models) and use Macs every day in critical production work — but I fear the romance is over. Indeed, it appears that this once loved champion of quality user friendly creative technology is becoming like everything else: market share and profits rule… and screw the people who’s backs you built it all on.

    Not good. Maybe the world needs a new “Apple.”



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