Doing email better, or better, not doing email at all

Email. What a disaster. Wastes time. Hard to secure. Ubiquitous.

Some seek to avoid it entirely, for good reasons

This phenomenon can be thought of as a potent modern tragedy of the commons. The commons in question here is the world’s pool of attention. Email makes it just a little too easy to grab a piece of that attention. The unintended consequence of all those little acts of grabbing, is a giant rats nest of voracious demands on our time, energy and sanity.

C&C social media, or email monsters.

But being realistic, we are already locked in to email. So, how can we minimise the harm?

Better clients

Be smarter about how you read your mail. Encryption-supporting clients etc. Less-awful-UI clients.

The classics are Apple Mail, Thunderbird, Evolution etc. The rule for all mail clients is everyone hates them all and no-one has improved substantially over the interface designs on the 90s. Nonetheless all the mediocre options are… there. Somehow still with bugs despite their minimal innovation. Apple Mail is at least well-integrated into the OS if you use macOS.

Note that google mail has obviously done some UX innovation, but I’m not happy with their owning too much info about me, so I will ignore their mail client. It is dead to me.

Also, since I work on macOS, iOs and Linux, I will be focussing on clients that run on those.


Thunderbird is the classic Mozilla-backed mail client that I’ve always found aesthetically grating. However, it works flexibly across every mail server I have tried, so it is worth weathering the quirks.

Thunderbird gets CardDAV support and hence contact syncing via plugins.

The weird foibles are survivable. For example, search is just confusing. There are two search boxes, with confusing relationship. They both do different kinds of search.

The default search is by something called “relevance” which seems in practice to mean “please show me some arbitrary irrelevant email from last year”. I guess that could mean that it is truly a search by relevance, just not in the order that would be useful, i.e relevant first.


Evolution is the GNOME mail client. It supports GPG FWIW, and has powerful and flexible configuration and good integration into GNOME desktop, and Microsoft Exchange support and icloud support and indeed everything support. Featureful.

OTOH it uses a remarkable amount of my CPU time and intermittently leaks memory or cpu in a way that fills me with dread for the code quality. NB that CPU usage is a background process the it is hard to disable; Even when I am not running the evolution client, a substantial proportion of my battery is going into its obsessive syncing. (tldr periodically delete ~/.cache/evolution/addressbook).

Evolution supports icloud interoperation and other CardDAV servers.

I often want to view just my flagged messages. It is not obvious how to filter to flagged messages, but the short answer is use a search folder. However, on my computer I can create search folders, but they care invisible so rather hard to use.


Sylpheed is a light apparently simple mail client that I see recommended where people are complaining about Evolution being slow. Claws is AFAICT a fork and has exactly the same selling points.


Mailspring is a web-tech-backed GPL3 mail client. It has a freemium feature set for fancy people at USD8/month. The interface design is really nice. It’s a pity they don’t handle encryption.


Kube is a minimalist client built by kolabnow. It supports encryption, and is certainly fast and simple. It doesn’t do certain things one would like, such as multiple mail accounts, or even one mail account with an icloud address server. But the simple interface is sooooo soothing.


  • Sparkmailapp is a commercial app that comes recommended as being less of a mess than other mail thingies and for innovating in design and such. macOS and android only.
  • Weird open-source alternative email client mailpile tries to be hackable and secure. Icelandic. AGPL-licensed, which is a vaguely irritationg licence for me at least. Reinventing lots of wheels and full of odd obsolescent dependencies. I like their aspirations, but their github tracker feels amateurish. Watch how they cargo-cult in an unmaintained Bayesian spam filter as essential infrastructure without the ability to maintain it! Thrill to their unclear threat model! Panic as they take years to get prototypes working!
  • gpgtools will upgrade even Apple Mail to be a bit more encryptey.
  • mailvelope is an easy-to-use web-browser extension which brings OpenPGP encryption to webmail services such as Gmail™, Yahoo™ and others. With its unintrusive interface fully integrated into your webmail service, Mailvelope instantly secures your personal and professional email communications.”

Contact syncing

See contacts and calendars.

Better providers

Be smarter about who does all that network transmission of your mail.

  • google mail exists, but that is about selling my personal data to faceless foreign corporations, so no. Unfortunately my contacts insist on using it, so my information is sold off anyway. Note to self: lose friends.
  • If you had time you could host your own encryption-happy server
  • At least get email from someone who is not paying their costs by abusing your personal data.

As for that last one, here are some reasonably-reputable 3rd party email providers who in principle won’t give up your email without telling you because of legal protections.

Here are some that in principle can’t give up your email because they never see your unencrypted data:

Here are some I forgot to file and must look up later.

Archiving email

Mailpiler is a webserver which provides a front-end to a MySQL index of all your emails. Is that what you want? Are you spending your time wisely?

No but actually what can I replace email with?

Which deficiencies do you wish to avoid? If it’s security you might do better with OTR chat clients, or tinfoil hat cryptopunk social networks.

Getting mail transport agents

a.k.a. mail server software. Basic level if you want to run you own MTA for sending messaged but you want some guarantees of privacy or security, you can host your own server, although it is rather tedious. The main, and as afar as I know, only, protocol is called SMTP, but there are many implementations. I have only used postfix. There are hip hackable alternatives like ZoneMTA and Haraka, but I have not used them.

If you want to run your own perhaps it is easier using an nsta-deploy postfix server with mailinabox. Or you could use a commercial provider which will handle all the details. mailgun is an example of a hosted service that will send lotsa email for you via an API. Same with Sendgrid. I think Zed Shaw’s Lamson was also such a thing but is now abandoned.

Bulk mail

You know, newsletters etc. Are you building a machine to bulkemail people messages about something or other? You probably don’t care so much about confidentiality in this case.

The dominant commercial player is mailchimp, but there are open source alternatives such as mautic (PHP) and mailtrain (node.js).