The Sparrow Migration

Image from Flickr user neistridlar

I ditched an old friend last week. He’s been more than a friend to me, often a business partner, he’s brought me good things and bad, entertained me and helped me learn. We’ve been together a long time, but lately he’s been cramping my style. I’m talking, of course, about Mac Mail, that venerable mail client included with Mac OSX.

The Problem

While Mail admittedly has a lot of good points, for a long time user like me, it has one fatal flaw — it never forgets. I had several years worth of email in various archived mailboxes accessible within the application. It’s handy to be able to go back two years to grab a reference from an old email — at least for me it is. Trouble is, Mail seems unable to forget a single email address associated with old emails. In time, this becomes a crushing productivity burden when addressing mail. The sheer number of possibilities for address autocompletion becomes oppressively large. Mail not only gives you everything from your address book that might match, it also gives you everything from every email you ever received or sent. Its suggestions helpfully include all the out of date addresses for friends and colleagues, leaving me to try to remember which of the three addresses I have for John Smith would actually be correct.

Before you ask, yes, I did dutifully follow all the online suggestions about clearing unwanted addresses from the previous recipients list. None of it works for me. It’s like playing whack-a-mole, as soon as I delete them, they pop back up again. I even tried simply deleting the plist file that stores all those addresses. Mail will recreate that list for you just the same as before, without complaint. I’ve lived with this as a growing problem for a while, but as more and more people that I regularly correspond with change addresses, as people do, the situation was becoming untenable. The mental cycles required for sending a simple email were getting out of hand.

The Solution

I’ve been relying on Gmail more and more lately, essentially holding my nose about the unsavory aspects of Google’s terms, simply because the service itself is so freaking great. I’ve tried a bunch of things, but IMAP Gmail can simply not be beat for reliability if you have multiple devices that you want to see identical inboxes in. Having said that, I really don’t care for browser-based email, so I still felt I needed a desktop client for my Mac. Enter Sparrow. Sparrow is a really fresh approach to the desktop email client, it supports and embraces all the things that make Gmail so great. Labels are fully supported, making the organizing of email so much easier. The threaded conversations really clean up the inbox, while keeping mutually relevant bits together. It’s all beautifully simple, and supported by a search algorithm that is blazingly fast.

One thing that Sparrow does not seem to do, that Mail does, is to store local copies of email messages. I’m obsessive about back-ups, so this was an issue for me. I never want to be in a position where I can lose access to the contents of my email archive, it’s simply too valuable to me. Fortunately, there is an answer. Unfortunately, it’s a bit technical. The solution is to set up a script that downloads all new messages from your Google “All Mail” mailbox, and to run it frequently. This post from Wired provides the best description I could find on the web for setting up GetMail, an open source Python program to do this. Setting up a Cron job to run this once a day in the wee hours completes the set-up. Once in place, this will automatically save a local copy of all your correspondence, shielding you from any Google-created catastrophes. Full disclosure: my computer engineering student son (@gordon_bailey) set this all up for me in about five minutes, for me it would have been a lot longer, if at all.

The Lesson

While all of the above is good and interesting when it comes to setting up a really robust email scenario that syncs flawlessly and doesn’t put your data at risk, there’s a larger lesson here. Notice what it was that got me to abandon using a product I’d been happily using for ten years — it was a very small user experience thing. Very small in that it’s probably almost trivial to correct it in the software, but very big for a longtime user like me. It was all about where the autocomplete data was drawn from. Sparrow avoids Mail’s problem by pulling autocomplete data from the address book only. This approach means that once in a while, it will have nothing to suggest to me. I’m OK with that because for the other 95% of the time, it will give me only relevant choices. A small detail that saves me a ton of time and frustration. That’s the lesson.

Image by Flickr user neistridlar

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Comments (3)

  • Hi Stewart, I agree with your thoughts, I had the same problem with the Apple mail, moreover I was sick of the shoddy formatting it produced on Windows platform.

    I recently moved to Sparrow, the big issue Im facing is migrating my work email (hosted on gmail) to Sparrow, I have no clue how to download the previous email so I can keep a copy locally, any thoughts?


      Hi Piyush, I had the same question myself. I couldn’t find a way either, although I expect there’s probably a hacky way to do it if you really wanted to. In the end I resorted to the workaround of simply keeping the old Mail app available, and opening it to find any older emails I needed to refer to. You can just forward them to yourself to get them into Sparrow. It’s not ideal, but I found that after a few weeks I needed to go back to Mail less and less, and haven’t opened it in quite a while now.

      • Yeah, thats what I’m doing now. Thanks for the reply!

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