Email is massive and unavoidable. You usually can’t afford to get it wrong. But recently, I had the urge to try something new.
Google’s Gmail works fine, but, like Facebook, it’s long been “that thing I use because it’s a thing I use, not because it’s delightful.”
Apple Mail, meanwhile, has simple technical issues, few features, and too bland of a design for something I have to stare at all day.
Bored with these defaults, I ventured into the land of third-party alternatives to try Spark, an Apple-focused email client from Ukrainian developer Readdle.
Spark itself isn’t new — it’s been featured in the iOS App Store for over a year, and we’ve highlighted the iPhone version in the past. But after expanding to the Mac late last month, it should be even more appealing for those locked into the world of Apple. Take a look.
On both iOS and macOS, you can plow through a mountain of unread messages.
Hit the delete (or archive) button and you're immediately moved onto the next email. When you're not in message view, you can swipe on individual emails in your inbox -- with either your finger or a touchpad -- to quickly flag (here called 'pin'), delete, archive, or mark them as read or unread.
Whatever the case, everything loads quickly, and I've yet to notice a problem with emails from my multiple Gmail accounts not syncing.
Spark takes a lot of info and gives it plenty of room to breathe. It's nice to look at, with rounded text and satisfying, colourful animations that pop up whenever you act on a message.
The message creator is wholly straightforward, and the little touches -- the neatness of the email thread view, the way the formatting menu quietly pops up whenever you highlight a section of text, the way you can cycle through signatures with a couple of clicks -- are just pleasing.
There's a small learning curve, but the first time you look at it, it's not hard to figure out what to do.
Spark's big sexy feature is something Readdle calls the 'Smart Inbox.' It's similar to how Gmail separates your mail into separate categories, only it works across multiple accounts, and it doesn't make you click across multiple tabs.
When you get a message, the app will automatically sort it into appropriate sections -- direct messages go to 'Personal' at the top, automated and subscription emails go to 'Newsletters,' mail that's deemed worthy of a notification goes to 'Notifications.'
Important threads you've pinned get their own group, too, and once you look at a message, it's thrown into a 'Seen' group at the bottom of the pile.
Worse to comes to worst, you can also dictate where each email thread should go manually.
As noted above, you can make it so Spark only sends notifications for more pressing, non-automated emails.
Over the past week, for instance, I've received a torrent of CES-related pitches. At first, Spark didn't notify me for each one. But as it saw that I kept responding to emails with 'CES' in it, it started to alert me whenever a new one arrived.
You can pin particular folders to the sidebar so that they're always visible, remove other sections altogether, or add things like a 'Recently Seen' tab, which is helpful for finding messages you may have passed by too soon.
You can change how many emails you want to be visible in each section.
You can set different swiping and keyboard shortcuts.
If you use multiple accounts, you can separate their inboxes for a given widget, or clump them together.
You can snooze messages and have them reappear at specific times.
Point being: If you need to tweak, you can probably do so.
The fact that every email jumps down to the 'Seen' folder right after you look at it will throw people off at first -- I got used to it, and you can stop the app from automatically moving onto the next email, but sometimes you want to keep a message up top even if you can't act on it right away. Some sort of 'do not mark as read' option is needed.
There's also no way to change the order of the various inbox sections (I'd like to have my flagged emails above my newsletters) or create folders within the app itself.
There's no calendar integration in the Mac app, and what's available on iOS isn't always accurate. You also can't view attachments within the Mac app itself. (Though it does integrate with Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, Evernote, and other popular services on iOS.)
The touted 'natural language search' didn't feel significantly smarter than basic Gmail search for me. And don't expect Spark to be the most privacy-conscious app -- it's collecting a fair amount of data to make those personalised bits happen.
The biggest hangup, though, is that it's only available for Apple devices. If you don't use Mac, iOS, or WatchOS, you're out of luck.
That said, Readdle VP of marketing Denys Zhadanov told Business Insider in an email that an Android version of Spark is 'already in the works,' and that Readdle 'hopes' it will arrive sometime in Q1 2017. He declined to say if the company is working a Windows edition, though.
Spark is completely free. While Readdle is a bit more established than most iOS app developers, it's still no giant.
We've seen stories like this before: Smaller developer makes good email app, word of mouth spreads, app gains cult following. The next step, as has been demonstrated by Mailbox and Sparrow and Accompli, is for a big company to buy and kill it.
If Spark wants to avoid such a cash out -- and it apparently does -- it needs to make money.
Readdle's plan to do that, according to Zhadanov, is 'Spark 2.0,' which he describes as 'email for teams.' He says that should be available as a closed beta in late January.
The idea is to sell an beefed-up Spark to smaller companies and groups within corporations.
While Zhadanov wouldn't go into deep specifics about what the upgrade will add, he did say it will be 'built for team collaboration around emails' and stronger 'communication mechanics.' One goal is to remove the need to forward emails to coworkers.
Zhadanov also said Spark 2.0 will have 'similar mechanics to Slack' when it comes to monetisation, though he couldn't say how much it'll cost.
Currently, Slack has a free base tier, but sells a pair of more featured iterations -- with things like guest access, expanded file storage, and deeper search and security options -- for roughly $7 or $13 per user, per month.
Zhadanov said some of the new team-focused features will be available at no cost, though, and that the update won't change anything that's available for free today.
Readdle has a steep climb ahead of it if it wants to displace Gmail or Outlook around the office, but for individual Apple fans with an itch for something new, it's easily worth a shot.
But none of these things really have everything right, and Spark is both faster and more fun than the usual suspects. It's made my inbox more welcoming.