Microsoft updated its e-mail app for Android, allowing users of Outlook.com (Live.com and Hotmail.com addresses too) to manage their accounts. The interface is clean – the theme is dark and not much in the way of options – and it’s nice to have the option between a unified inbox or tabs for each of your accounts. Unlike K-9, though, you can only connect to Microsoft accounts. The search function will retrieve matching contacts. All in all, it’s a nice looking app if you only use Microsoft’s e-mail and don’t have Exchange.
Lawyers struggle with confidentiality related to communicating with clients in a secure way. While e-mail has been accepted as a reliable method, if only because of an expectation of privacy, you may be more concerned about sending an attachment. Yousendit.com is frequently mentioned in legal technology circles as an easy and reliable way to send large files. You upload the file to Yousendit’s Web site and your recipient accesses it there.
Microsoft Outlook users could quickly send files using a plug-in. Yousendit has recently updated their Windows and iPad software and have now added an Android app and support (still beta) for Macintosh OS. Yousendit supports e-signing as well as secure e-mail, and may be a good way for lawyers to send and receive files from clients and keep them in a native, electronic format.
Older versions of Windows came with a free e-mail client called Outlook Express. It caused continual confusion in the legal profession, with lawyers thinking they were using the high-powered Microsoft Outlook when in fact they were using the substandard Express product. Outlook Express wasn’t bad but it was not in any way comparable to Outlook’s rich features.
The e-mail landscape has changed significantly over the years, with many lawyers dropping their e-mail clients to go entirely to the Web. They log in to Windows Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, or Google Mail and their entire interaction is online. Some will also use alternative e-mail products, like Mozilla’s Thunderbird or Apple’s Mail.
Windows users who are looking for a simple e-mail application should look at Windows Live Mail. The interface is a huge improvement over Outlook Express and has the ability to handle more, and non-Microsoft, mail accounts than the older product did.
Windows Live Mail is a consumer-oriented download, so you will be prompted to load a bunch of other dreck – instant messaging, photo tools, etc. – that you do not necessarily need for your practice. Microsoft has followed other e-mail programs so that e-mail account setup is turnkey for major providers. For example, if you type in your Google Mail username and password, Windows Live Mail will automatically configure the server settings you need to access your mail. You can finally forget about what IMAP means or where your SMTP server is!
It supports other e-mail providers as well, although you may find that it does not support their authentication. For example, I use an e-mail server that requires a particular method of secure authentication (STARTTLS). Windows Live Mail was unable to talk to this server, although it supports secure authentication using SSL.
It is still not Microsoft Outlook. But if you are looking for an easy to use, light e-mail application, Windows Live Mail is a nice, free option. Thunderbird and Zimbra have more power but they may be more complicated than you need.
Microsoft Outlook remains the most popular e-mail software used in law firms. The growth in Web-based e-mail used and the continued curiosity of lawyers in using cloud systems means that there is a greater chance that Outlook will not be on a lawyer’s PC. Zimbra is a great, free alternative. Originally a Yahoo! product, it was sold in 2010 to VMWare, which is a leading virtualization software company. They also offer an open source e-mail server called Zimbra.
IMAP & Backup
There are a number of things to like about Zimbra in addition to the price. Since it supports IMAP and POP, you can use Zimbra with a Google Mail account or one from your ISP. This is pretty common among e-mail applications, including Postbox Express and Thunderbird.
However, Zimbra has a particular function that seems unique which is that it will do a regular backup of these IMAP e-mail accounts, not just for offline use but for business continuity purposes. This may make lawyers who are cautious about using the cloud feel less at its mercy.
Social Media Support
Another unusual feature is the built in social media support. While you can add RSS feeds from Twitter to your Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird programs, Zimbra has a social tab. You can add your Twitter and Facebook accounts to the software and it will show your message streams on this tab. If you use Twitter like I do, as a research tool rather than an interaction point, having this information within your e-mail software may make you more productive.
Another feature common to Zimbra and Outlook is the ability to look at messages across different folders and mail accounts. For example, if you have both your ISP and Google Mail accounts in Zimbra, you can quickly see all unread messages in either account, in any folder. This cuts down the need to go into each e-mail account and look for messages that you have filtered out of your inbox.
One aspect of Zimbra that I found a bit troubling was that it seemed slow. Admittedly, I was testing it on a netbook with 2GB of RAM and Windows 7 but I would have expected it to be a bit faster. If your work computer is a bit older or underpowered, you may want to test Zimbra for awhile to see if it meets your needs.
One important way you can impact your productivity is when you can take a tool that works for you and wrangle more information with it. If you use Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird for e-mail, you may know that you can manage multiple e-mail accounts with the software. For example, if you have an e-mail address with your law firm’s domain (firstname.lastname@example.org) and a personal address from Google Mail, you can access both at once. Being able to look at all of your e-mail at once can reduce the need to have two different applications open or two different places to visit.
Mobile users with Android devices may have missed that possibility, where you might have been using the default e-mail Android e-mail app for one account and an app for another account, like the GMail for Mobile app. You might take a look at K-9 Mail as an alternative. The free app works like typical dessktop software, managing multiple accounts and having a broader feature set for managing each account than the default software in Android.
I have been using K-9 and like the single view to my e-mail. It picks up Google Mail accounts very easily; other accounts may require a bit more customization. Since it uses IMAP – leaving messages on the server even when I move them around and reorganize them – I can always see the latest activity in my accounts without synchronizing, even if I have accessed the accounts from another computer (or even another Android e-mail app!).
If you’re an Android phone user, K-9 is definitely worth a look.
Without revisiting the idea of the universal inbox, there are times when you want to create a single point of contact with as much information as possible. A good example of this can occur when you integrate your RSS feeds into your e-mail client. I spend a lot of time discussing RSS in the text, so I won’t retread that ground. You may prefer to have your RSS news and other subscriptions in a dedicated RSS reader, for particular features or functionality. The benefit of bringing your RSS into your e-mail program is that you can use the interface you are probably already comfortable with for e-mail and apply it to RSS.
For example, say you add an RSS feed to your Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail client. If you want to mark items as read, you can hold down your SHIFT key and hit C, which will mark e-mail or RSS items as having been read. This means you have one fewer program to learn when managing your subscriptions. Similarly, if your e-mail client has a search function like Thunderbird or Microsoft’s Outlook, you can search across your e-mail and RSS all at once.
RSS in Microsoft Outlook 2010
In Microsoft Outlook 2010,which I’m currently using in beta, you will see an entry for RSS feeds under your Outlook Data File. Right click on the RSS feeds entry and you can Add a New RSS Feed individually or as a group, using the OPML format (and a file in that format that you will have exported from your RSS reader).
RSS in Mozilla Thunderbird 3
The same works in Mozilla Thunderbird 3, although you have to create the folder to store the RSS. To do so, to to your Account settings and select Account Actions at the bottom of the window. You should see choices to add a mail account or an other account. Select the option to Add Other Account. You will be prompted to add either newsgroups or blogs and feeds; select the latter. Give your blogs and feeds folder a name, and it will appear in your left hand panel. To add a new RSS feed or import (or export) a group of feeds in OPML format, right click on the blogs and feeds folder and select Subscribe.
Here is another opportunity to leverage integration built into your Windows system. If you use the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser (versions 7 or 8 so far), you can subscribe to RSS feeds from your Web browser. When you do so, they are stored in what is called the Windows Common Feed List (CFL). This list of RSS feeds will automatically appear in Microsoft Outlook if you have selected to have Outlook access the CFL. This might be an advantage for you, if you are used to subscribing to RSS in your Web browser and don’t want to have to re-subscribe from within Outlook. You can turn on Outlook access to the Common Feed list by clicking on File, selecting Options, and then selecting Advanced. Click on the box next to the CFL option.
Secure RSS Feeds: How to Authenticate
This is especially important if you subscribe to authenticated RSS feeds that require a username and a password to access. A good example of this would be your RSS feed from your Twitter account, if you have one. It is not available to just anyone. In Thunderbird, you will be prompted for the Twitter username and password before you can access the RSS feed. Microsoft Outlook will not prompt you, and will return an error message suggesting that it can’t find the RSS feed. It can’t, because it cannot pass authentication credentials. But Internet Explorer will allow you to pass credentials to the RSS feed security, so subscribe to the RSS feed from your Web browser and it will be saved into the Common Feed List. When you open up Outlook – and have CFL support turned on – it will synchronize the feeds to which you subscribed in Internet Explorer, and present them to you from within Outlook.
As many stand-alone RSS software applications seem to be disappearing in favor of Web-based RSS readers, and some of their functionality is disappearing as well, your e-mail app may become a powerful alternative.
I have been watching the news about the new Threadsy beta (see Lifehacker, GigaOm, and TechCrunch for specific coverage). If you are like me, you may have multiple communication flows and anything that can help you to pull them into a single interface can be great. Right now I use Mozilla’s Thunderbird to aggregate my e-mail. Each of my Google Mail and other accounts are set up using IMAP, so that I can access the account through a remote piece of software (Thunderbird in this case) and any changes I make (read a message, delete or move it) are reflected on the account.
There has been a lot written on the universal inbox (which I am using generically, not in reference to the Universal Inbox). The feature set tends to be the same, as is the requisite reference to The Lord of the Rings (“one ring to . . . ” you get the picture). The inbox aggregates the e-mail from multiple accounts into some type of dashboard or other simple interface. You can then manage many communications sources from one point.
As this piece at ReadWriteWeb indicates, though, the universal inbox is an oft-tried, rarely successful application. I agree with their perception: most people want to use their e-mail software, not some Web-based aggregation tool.
So back to Threadsy. I was intrigued because it offered not just to manage my e-mail (a problem) but also to weave in my Twitter stream (@davidpwhelan) so that my e-mails and Twitter messages were all in the same single flow. I registered for the beta and gave it a test. The application is promising but at the end of the day, it looks like it will face the same hurdles as other universal inboxes. The beta worked – and I understand that a beta isn’t perfect – and there didn’t appear to be anything that didn’t work as advertised or designed. But I still didn’t like the experience. Opening an e-mail message relies on IMAP, just like Thunderbird or Microsoft Outlook can. The retrieval of the e-mail from Google took a surprising amount of time. I liked that I could see social information about my correspondent when the message opened. If you use Google Mail, you may already be using the Rapportive tool to replicate this feature, which shows a picture, full name, and other information if known through one of the social avatar sites.
Unlike client-based e-mail applications, the lumping of all accounts into one almost made the information flow worse. I lost some of the visual cues that helped me to triage my e-mail and lifestream. You can select to look at an individual e-mail account or Twitter feed, but only one at a time. It would be nice to be able to have a single tab for each communication stream that is aggregated in the unified view, similar to a faceted search on an e-commerce site. Then I could flip between unified and distinct sources, as needed.
At the end of my brief try at using Threadsy, I was reaffirmed that David Weinberger’s book title – Small Pieces, Loosely Joined – is the likely future for e-mail clients, among many other things. Whether you are using Microsoft Outlook with Xobni and other add-ons I mention in the text or Mozilla’s Thunderbird or some other installed or Web-based e-mail client like Google Mail, you have a far richer feature set than any of the universal inbox type tools, like Threadsy, can emulate. That is not to say they can’t or won’t in the future. The speed with which new add-ons for e-mail software comes out, though, means that a site building an aggregation environment is battling against very nimble, small application extensions that can do similar functions within an environment in which the user is already comfortable.