Emailer and the Death of Software
Was anyone surprised when Emailer languished after being brought back into Apple in the Claris-to-FileMaker, Inc. transformation? Perhaps Emailer users were, since there’s little that inspires blind loyalty like a good program you use all day, every day. Emailer was and is a good email program, and frankly, it deserves better than to fade away into the bit bucket. Unfortunately, despite several petition drives, that’s what I see happening, unless… well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Think for a moment about Apple’s position as the Macintosh company. Apple must always tread a fine line between adding capabilities to the Macintosh and maintaining good relations with Macintosh developers. Apple could crush almost any Macintosh product by building similar functionality into the Mac OS. It’s happened in the past, and it will happen in the future: AppleScript undermined UserLand Frontier as a commercial scripting tool; PlainTalk has impeded development of sophisticated speech recognition software; and countless shareware products have been mothballed over the years as items like hierarchical Apple menus and desktop pictures were integrated into the operating system. Apple must do these things carefully and without malice, or the company risks alienating the very developers who power the Macintosh.
Revisions Necessary — So Apple now holds a powerful but aging email client. Although Emailer has numerous great features on top of a solid base, its primary competition – Eudora Pro and Outlook Express – have leapfrogged Emailer’s feature set. They added support for multiple accounts, HTML-styled mail, LDAP directory services, IMAP for retrieving mail, inline spell checking, and much more. If that weren’t enough, new email programs like Mailsmith from Bare Bones Software and PowerMail from CTM Development have further divided the market. Today, Emailer’s main unique feature is its ability to pick up mail from CompuServe and AOL.
Revising Emailer to compete wouldn’t be a trivial task, since adding support for HTML-styled mail requires adding an HTML parser and modifying the display engine. IMAP support could require significant modifications to the code that retrieves mail, and IMAP requires a rethinking of how mailboxes work due to its method of storing mail on the server. Apple either has or could hire the talent necessary to update Emailer, but that costs money, and Apple is still concentrating on keeping the company in the black. Projects that might not earn a profit aren’t likely to live long in today’s Apple Computer.
Apple’s Options — For the moment, however, let’s assume that Apple would be willing to put the effort and money into bringing Emailer up to speed. What then?
Apple could give Emailer away for free with every copy of the Mac OS. That’s a great way to alienate developers and lose money. The fact that Outlook Express comes free with current versions of the Mac OS isn’t popular with other email developers, but at least Microsoft is happy, and in today’s industry, it’s better to have Microsoft happy with you than not.
Apple could sell Emailer for $50 or so in the retail channel. Other email developers wouldn’t be as bothered by this, since Apple’s only real advantage would be its name. However, Apple doesn’t have a strong history selling inexpensive pieces of software. The Mac OS sells well, and I gather the Apple Internet Connection Kit (which stomped my Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh book/software package) also sold fairly well. Apple might have trouble selling enough copies into a fragmented market to justify the expense of updating.
Another option arises if Apple decides not to update Emailer. Giving the current version of Emailer away for free wouldn’t cost anything except some good will with developers. But it also hurts the entire email community by slowing the acceptance of new capabilities that require interoperability. For instance, a set of standard headers have been approved for use by mailing lists to make it easier for email programs to identify mailing list postings and automate tasks like subscribing, unsubscribing, posting, getting help, and so on. Without support for those new headers in email programs (which wouldn’t happen in a moribund Emailer), mailing list administrators would have less incentive to implement the new headers, reducing their utility to the rest of us.
Adopting Emailer — Faced with little chance for profit from Emailer and a strong possibility for alienating a number of Macintosh developers, Apple could consider selling Emailer to another company. That’s how 3Com picked up Claris Organizer for use with the PalmPilot; in fact, we’ve heard that Apple has shopped Emailer around.
The problem is that any company that buys Emailer from Apple must still make the business case for spending more money updating and marketing Emailer. The decision would easier with less competition, but competing against a set of powerful programs that range from free to inexpensive isn’t a recipe for business success. The main argument in its favor is that a small company like Fog City Software (the company that originally developed Emailer, though Emailer’s lead developer now works on Outlook Express) wouldn’t need to sell as many copies as a giant like Apple to turn a profit. Even still, marketing software isn’t cheap, and that’s especially true of inexpensive software, where you need high sales volume to break even on a marketing campaign.
So, although it could still happen, I can’t see any well-known Macintosh company buying and resuscitating Emailer. The best commercial option would be some well-funded unknown that wanted to use it as their introduction to the Macintosh market. They’d certainly get significant word of mouth from the current Emailer users, and that kind of notoriety is tremendously valuable.
If I’m right and Emailer stands little chance of surviving in any of these different ways, perhaps there’s an alternative? Tune in next week for thoughts on how we can save both Emailer and a variety of other worthwhile programs that have met untimely ends.