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First Thunderbird, now Sparrow? We need e-mail clients, please

CNET's Rafe Needleman hopes Google's acquisition of Sparrow doesn't spell the end of competition among desktop e-mail software vendors.

Sparrow is one pretty e-mail client.
Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Today the small e-mail app company Sparrow announced it's getting acquired by Google. I hope this will be good news, but I am not convinced. With Mozilla ceasing development of Thunderbird features, things look bad for users of desktop e-mail software.

I'm a paying user of the Sparrow OS X application. I love it. I find it provides both a simple view to my GMail accounts, and a very fast interface to blast though messages. Google's GMail Web app gives me more features and better searching, and Thunderbird and Postbox are better for bulk operations, but for day-to-day e-mail activities, you really cannot beat Sparrow.

So I was excited when I first heard this news. Since while I love GMail, I despise the Web-based user interface to it. If there's one thing Gmail could really use, it's a strong client app. And hiring the Sparrow developers is a smart move from that perspective. Giving the Sparrow team more resources, exposure to the entire GMail user base, and the keys to the Gmail code, I imagined, could yield a truly great suite of e-mail apps, building off the Sparrow I already love.

Unfortunately, in a note that sounds ominous for Sparrow users, the Sparrow CEO (and presumably soon-to-be Google VP) Dom Leca said in an e-mail to customers, "We will continue to make available our existing products, and we will provide support and critical updates to our users. However, as we'll be busy with new projects at Google, we do not plan to release new features for the Sparrow apps."

That e-mail makes it sound like Sparrow users will become app orphans, at least for a while, as the Sparrow team is absorbed into Google. The occasional presents we get from the developers in updates will stop coming. And that is a crying shame.

E-mail needs software. Yes, you can do a lot with a Web-based e-mail client (and a lot more than Google currently does with Gmail), but there's nothing like a close-to-the-metal app like an e-mail client to mediate the workflow state of "I'm blasting through my e-mail, leave me alone." Even the most modern Web UI is a bottleneck to the e-mail ninja.

It's not clear if Google execs feel its in their company's interest to push a strong desktop client app. Google may use the Sparrow team to beef up the Android mobile e-mail client, which is good at least for those users. It may deploy Sparrow's artists to fix the Web app.

An article on The Verge gives me a little hope: "Google isn't ruling out native Gmail clients for platforms beyond iOS and Android.... Google wants to bring polish, 'beauty,' and ease of use to all of its Gmail experiences across platforms"

Postbox may pick up where Sparrow leaves off. Postbox

Let's hope this article is accurate. Web UIs are bottlenecks. Smartphones are too tiny. Tablets are limited (but getting better). There is still nothing like a real desktop app for ultimate e-mail productivity.

There is one group for whom the demise of these e-mail clients is good news: The team over at Postbox, the other remaining independent e-mail app with a large user base. This company started when people left the Thunderbird project at Mozilla (wisely, it turns out) to build a world-class, complete e-mail client for desktops.

According to CEO Sherman Dickman, Postbox doesn't even have a mobile strategy. That's music to my ears. Let's hear it for an app that's focused on getting work done on the device where you can actually do it.

Postbox, by the way, recently got a price cut, from $29.95 to $9.95. If you want to use an e-mail app today that has a better chance of being supported and improved over the next few years, check it out. It's not as pretty as Sparrow, but for the e-mail power user it is a very good tool.