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.Mac Webmail Gets a Makeover

Last week Apple rolled out a major overhaul to the email portion of the .Mac Web site. With the changes, the .Mac webmail interface looks and acts strikingly similar to Apple’s Mail application. In a dramatic departure from its previous design, .Mac webmail now uses Tiger Mail-style buttons and icons, supports drag-and-drop for moving messages, offers tighter Address Book integration, supports keyboard shortcuts, and features a three-pane interface – with mailboxes on the left, a message list at the top, and a preview pane at the bottom.

The new design is a fine example of Ajax, or Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, a programming technique that enables Web sites to display dynamic data and interact with user input without requiring pages to reload after each change. Part of the way sites accomplish this magic is by predicting which information a user is most likely to need and transferring that data in the background, before the user explicitly asks for it. As a result, most actions you perform, such as checking for new messages or switching mailboxes, can be accomplished without refreshing the entire page.

Among the nice touches are a Quick Reply button, to enable users to reply to a message without opening a separate window; an Action menu with commands for actions such as Delete, Move to Folder, Reply, and Mark as Read/Unread; and expanded preferences (you can turn off the preview pane, for example, control the appearance of mailbox icons, turn off the display of images in HTML messages, and even opt for Unicode [UTF-8] encoding for outgoing messages). Assuming you’ve synchronized your Mac OS X Address Book with .Mac, you can begin typing a contact’s name or email address in a message’s To, Cc, or Bcc field and use an auto-complete feature to fill in the rest (or choose among a list of partial matches). And, if you change a message’s Flagged indicator in the webmail interface, the change shows up in Mail too (and vice versa).

For all the spiffy goodness of the new Ajax interface, though, a few features are less useful than they could be. First, .Mac webmail offers a search field that looks just like Mail’s Spotlight search field. Unfortunately, unlike in Mail, .Mac webmail can search only From, To, Cc, and Subject headers – but not other headers or the content of messages. And searches work only within the selected mailbox.

Also missing from the toolbar is the Junk button, which in Mail can not only move a message to the Junk mailbox but also add a Junk flag and update Mail’s junk mail filter with information about that message. Unlike Mail, .Mac webmail does not have a learning spam filter. You can manually drag a spam message to the Junk folder, but doing so does not set its Junk flag (as that’s something Mail tracks locally, not a message attribute that’s changed on the server) and does not make .Mac webmail more likely to discard similar messages in the future. There’s no way to use .Mac webmail to help train Mail’s spam filter, and no way to affect the way the .Mac mail servers themselves filter out spam.

Finally, the .Mac webmail interface offers no filtering rules, which I find indispensable in Mail (explained in detail in my “Take Control of Apple Mail in Tiger” ebook). You can, as before, set up an automatic reply to all messages (as you might use when on vacation, for instance) or forward your mail to another account. But you can’t tell .Mac webmail to transfer all messages matching certain criteria to a specific mailbox, send message-specific replies, or perform any of the many other useful tasks offered by rules. (I’ll be covering all these changes in more depth in a future update to my “Take Control of .Mac” ebook.)

While the new and improved .Mac webmail is unmistakably prettier and easier to use than before, it remains much less capable than Mail (or indeed virtually any desktop email client), and is still less than ideal for regular use unless the quantity of email you send and receive through .Mac is quite small.

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