Netscape vs. IE4 Mail Clients: which is better?

First Published:
Date Published: 1997
Copyright © 1997 by Kevin Savetz

Netscape Communicator 4.0 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 both ship with sophisticated e-mail programs (called "clients"). Now, you'd think Kevin and Neil would appreciate the simple facts that they exist and that they're included free with the package. But no-o-o-o-o-o: these guys have to argue about which is better.

Neil Randall: Hey, Kevin! Guess what! I'm using IE4's e-mail client, called Outlook Express, to send you these barbs. As a matter of fact, I've been living quite happily with Outlook Express (I'll call it OE) ever since the first beta of IE4 shipped ages ago. And that's pretty good, considering that I was a devoted and loyal Eudora user before. I wasn't expecting OE to be anything to write home about, but then I remembered that Microsoft seems intent on taking over whatever software category they try on for size, and to give it away free. The point is, the vast majority of people won't ever need anything beyond OE for their e-mail lives, not even when the full Outlook steals most of its features in its next release.

But I understand you got a nice little mail client in your Netscape Communicator package, too. I have it, too, and in case you haven't picked up on this yet, let me tell you that, compared with OE, Netscape Messenger sucks the serious banana. It's clumsy to use, it handles multiple e-mail accounts with all the elegance of an out-of-control tank, and - well, let's just face it, it's not very good. Hell, it doesn't even handle IMAP servers properly [IMAP is a type of mail server that lets you store and manage messages on the server machine itself, downloading only what you want], which is pretty ironic when you consider that Netscape's own mail server is fully IMAP capable. But hey, you can't get everything right, can you?

Kevin Savetz: Neil, do you actively try to irritate me or does that talent just come naturally to you? People take their e-mail very seriously, and our e-mail software is near and dear to our hearts. You can't just waltz in and start bashing a boy's mail client. Especially when all you've got on your side is a joke like Outlook Express. As integrated mail tools go, Netscape Communicator's Message Center leads the pack. The Message Center is a moonlight dance; your precious Outlook Express is more like a midnight walk in Central Park: scary. And cold.

The Message Center neatly combines classic Internet e-mail tools -- like filters and an address book that rocks -- with webby features like HTML in mail. Throw in the spelling checker, secure message transmission and -- oh yes -- an interface that makes sense, and Communicator cleans OE's clock.

I can understand why you wouldn't expect OE to be anything to write home about. As you are no doubt aware, Microsoft applications are usually bloated and buggy (and OE is no exception.) So certainly you weren't expecting too much from the company's half-hearted attempt to herd a few more sheep into their flock. "Throw a few more programmers at that Internet thing," Bill Gates says.

Neil Randall: Of course e-mail's personal, Kevin! That's the point. OE does a great job of letting you access any number of accounts - POP or IMAP - from within a single instance of the application. That means it's personal to the point of serving every possible need. It has Messenger's HTML view, it has secure message transmission, and we can argue all day about which interface is better (not that your argument will make much sense, but I'm used to that ...). You can import your account settings from any other major e-mail program, so you don't have to bother setting them up all over again, and it does one other thing that's simply crucial for me: It imports e-mail messages and folders from Eudora, Netscape Mail, and Microsoft Outlook. Since e-mail is so personal, if we're going to try out a new mail client we want our messages and our organizational structures intact, and OE does that without a hitch. And it handles newsgroups just about perfectly, within the same single instance as well.

A digression, though: the thing that ticks me off about OE and Messenger and, for that matter, Eudora, is that you can't set them up to require a password when they load. I don't mean a password to get your new messages, I mean one that starts the program. Anybody can start the thing and read what you've stored in your folders, even if they can't access your actual mail server. Other clients, such as Calypso and AK-Mail and E-Mail Connection, realized the importance of this feature long ago, but not the major mail clients. Mind you, the beta for the full Outlook package has this, so maybe it's not hopeless.

Kevin Savetz: So you've managed to find a feature in OE that Netscape's mailer doesn't have: multiple accounts, hooray for you. Here's a clue, Neil: nobody cares. I'd venture a guess that 99% of Internet users only have one e-mail account. Sure, there are legitimate reasons for some people to have more than one, but it's no big deal to get around the so-called limitation in Communicator. Since you're a Microsoft devotee, I know you're all too familiar with workarounds.

I don't want to pick nits, but Outlook Express isn't even really a part of Internet Explorer. OE is a separate application piggybacked onto IE. (Granted, Microsoft has frequent trouble telling things apart -- like its laughable tale to the courts that Internet Explorer and Windows are intertwined, that one can't work without the other.) The Message Center as much a part of Communicator as the web browser -- when you want to read your mail, the Message Center is there instantly. You don't have to wait for yet another app to load. More importantly, because it is a separate application, OE has its own sets of preferences -- it doesn't care that you've painstakingly set things up in IE and in Windows. Watch as OE ignores that I'm connected via ISDN -- despite the fact that IE and Windows know this -- and tries to connect to my Prodigy (!!) account.

About your digression: I agree wholeheartedly. But if you hold your breath for the next version of Outlook to fix that problem, you'll be thirty shades of blue before it's corrected. Haven't you learned to stop waiting for salvation by next great version -- from Microsoft or anyone else?

Neil Randall: What?!!! You mean salvation and true love is not merely an upgrade away? Talk about a bring-down. But speaking of bring-downs, Kevin, what's this about your complaining that OE is a separate application. Weren't you the person who, back in our first mud-slinging episode, told me that software should all be in separate packages, so that you don't load everything when you load one thing? As a judge once told a lawyer friend of mine, you can't suck and blow at the same time. So at least get your whining right.

As for the 99% single-account group, I doubt that's true. But even if it is, tons of people have many more than one account, and being able to manage them is important. When it comes right down to it, though, the mail client you like is the one that feels right for you, and OE feels better to me than Messenge Center. Lots better. And that's the determination of whether or not you'll use it.

Let me ask one more thing. Do you still use a separate mail client such as Eudora? Do you think they have a future?

Kevin Savetz: Yes, I do use Eudora (Actually, Eudora Pro). As much as I like Message Center, Eudora is my mailer of choice. Because I do believe in using different tools for different tasks. When each program is its own amimal, users can pick and choose the features that they need rather than being married to one company's idea of the perfect suite of tools. So it's fine with me that Outlook Express isn't truly a part of IE. But you gotta stop pretending that it is, Neil.

I'm a creature of habit and have been using Eudora since before Netscape was a household word -- and certainly before the first, bug-laden version of IE existed. Do Eudora and tools like it have a future? If you believe they don't, you really are deluded. As much as you adore MSIE, as much as I like Communicator, they are primarily web browsers -- and always will be.

Articles by Kevin Savetz