Apple’s updated Mail

After a short public beta (just over one month), Apple updated its Mail web app for MobileMe customers last week. The new features are now available to everyone, plus a few that weren’t a part of the beta. The major changes include a new UI, the addition of rules, one-click archiving and support for external email addresses. Here’s what’s changed and what we can glean from this update.

UI

The new look is the most striking change. All MobileMe web apps now share one toolbar with fewer icons. Starting from the right and working to the left, account information and logout buttons are in the same spot. The search bar has been moved to the far left on the new toolbar (below, top). Next, the strip of “action” buttons — Delete, Reply, Reply All, Forward, Refresh and Compose — have been replaced with Delete, Archive, Move to a Folder, Reply and Compose.

Finally, the series of app icons from the old toolbar (above, bottom) has been replaced by a single could icon (above, top). Clicking it brings up an application switcher (below), reminiscent of hitting Command-Tab in OS X. You’ll notice that the Mail, Calendar, Gallery, iDisk and Find my iPhone icons are the very same ones used by iOS devices.

Here are the other toolbars:

Contacts. The center icons are changed to New, Edit and Delete. The rest are the same.

Calendar. Navigation icons (Today, previous, Day, Week, Month and next) are in in the center. The rest are the same.

Gallery. Now Upload, Settings, Delete and Rotate are in the center. The rest are the same.

Find my iPhone. This one’s a bit different. There’s only the cloud icon, an option to refresh your device’s location and the login.

The updated Mail also offers three viewing options. Widescreen is a three-column view that puts mailboxes on the left, message information (subject, author and initial blurb) in the middle and the message body on the right. Classic view uses two columns with mailboxes on the left and the right-hand column split horizontally with message previews on top and the body below.

The compact view, which I’m using, is like widescreen minus the mailboxes (below, top). This layout resembles mail for iPad when the iPad is in landscape orientation (below, bottom).

The new preferences window has five options: General, Addresses, Composing, Rules and Vacation. Rules is the new feature here, and as this rounds out the UI changes, let’s see what that’s about.

Rules

At long last, users can apply rules to messages sent and received with the Mail web app. Unfortunately it’s limited in practice. Before we get into that, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, rules are applied across devices. That means you can set up a rule in your browser and it will be applied to messages sent and received with your iPod touch, iPhone, iPad and Mac running Mail for the desktop. For me this is huge. Recently we put out a call for new bloggers at TUAW. I set up a rule to move applications to a target folder on my Mac, which worked well.

However, it didn’t apply to my iPhone and my inbox was cluttered with an avalanche of applications. And that’s just one reason I’m excited about cross-platform compatibility.

Also note that it can take a while for rules to “kick in.” I found my test rule started working in under 10 minutes. Also, you can re-order rules with a drag-and-drop.

What kind of rules can you create? Nothing too fancy, I’m afraid. The available actions are:

  • Move message to a folder
  • Move message to the trash
  • Forward message to an address

You can tell Mail to act on messages that

  • Are to a certain address
  • Are from a certain address
  • CC a certain address
  • have a specific string in the subject

That’s all I’d use, but  it won’t be enough for some users. Below are some screenshots of the rules setup screens.

Archiving

One-click arching will move messages out of your inbox and into the archives folder for storage. Remember that your account comes with 20GB of storage, which you can allocate as you wish between iDisk and Mail. To make adjustments, log into MobileMe and select Account. Next, click Storage Settings. From there you can allocate your storage space. Click Save when you’re through.

I don’t use my email client as a file cabinet, but that’s another post entirely.

External email addresses

This feature was not a part of the beta. Users with multiple accounts can receive messages sent to those accounts with MobileMe. Additionally, if  you reply to a message sent to an external account from the Mail web app (and only the web app), you can have it appear to have come from that other account’s address. To set things up, simply forward the external address to your MobileMe address.

It’s interesting that MobileMe web mail and iOS are sharing so many visual cues. The Mail, Calendar, Gallery, iDisk and Find my iPhone icons in the new switcher are exactly the same as the corresponding iOS apps. Likewise, the compact view is nearly identical to mail on the iPad.

The similarities aren’t limited to software, either. Consider the new Mac mini. Its top looks awfully similar to the back of the iPad. The iMac’s display, with its glossy black bezel, resembles the iPad’s screen.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Apple’s design elements have spread across the line. The original iMac begat the G3 iBook. Then Mac OS 10.0 was release with shiny, aqua buttons. The original iPod ushered in the “white period,” and iBooks and iMacs followed suit.

That’s because Apple’s product line is practically a product in and of itself.  For now, iOS and the iDevices are receiving much creative time and attention. It’s clear that Apple believes that’s where the future of computing lies (a segment of computing anyway), so it’s logical that those visual cues would spread.

In the end, does this update mean you should become a MobileMe customer? No. If you weren’t convinced a week ago, this update won’t do it. Many of the MobileMe services can be had elsewhere. Others, like the stellar new Find My iPhone app, cannot. iDisk is still too slow, but the typically seamless synchronization of data across devices alone is worth it for some.

Current customers will love this update. Those waiting for more will continue to do so.