October 2007 saw the release of Mac OS 10.5, known popularly as “Leopard.” Like most commercial software, it has been heralded with praise for the genius of its “time machine” backup strategy and concerns about how gray and translucent parts of the interface have become. There will be lots of hype and many annoying changes, as there always are, but there will also be features and improvements folks will come to love. The new OS X Mail program (version three of Mail.app) is one of the latter, and adds many obvious and useful features which people will learn to love.
Getting Things Done with OS X Mail
One of the most popular recent books on time management is David Allen’s Getting Things Done. A positive cultural phenomenon in our digital age, Mr. Allen encourages folks to come up with a good system that captures all the “stuff” that we are tempted to hold in our heads in ways that make sense to us today. For folks who spend a lot of time on the Internet or in their email program, the new OS X Mail program has many features to help even new users get things done.
Best New Features of OS X Mail, Version 3
For the purposes of this article I am going to focus on just a few new features with obvious utility for casual users. Although I spend a large amount of my time helping people tailor technology to their precise needs and desires, I often find that showing someone a simple thing and letting them think is the best way for them to become better. New features, then, that most users will love:
- Notes: create small text documents within email folders
- Tasks: work with “to-do” items in both Mail and iCal
- RSS: subscribe to news “feeds” from a few key web sites
- Data Detectors: contextual menu support for dates and data
- Smart Filters: create filters to identify certain types of mail items
Make a Note of It
From floating yellow legal pads to sticky notes to index cards, most people have used some sort of system to collect small bits of data. The new “Notes” option in Mail allows you to do this, and place the notes in whichever mail folder makes sense to you. By default all notes will also appear in the “Notes” area, and this is a great tool for project steps, brainstorming, agendas, shopping lists or whatever. In my screenshot I have adapted the common GTD habit of adding punctuation to the front of an item so that it sorts alphabetically at the top, and GTD folks with their project lists and “next action” steps will find a lot to love in this feature.
“To-Do” Tasks Integrated with iCal
Another new feature is the option to select any text in a note and easily turn it into a “to-do” or task. Tasks that are so converted are automatically sent to iCal and can also be synchronized to your iPod or iPhone if you have one, and uncompleted tasks appear in the “to-do” section no matter what list they may be placed in. This to-do section also includes any tasks from iCal, allowing you to view your tasks there (as part of a calendar) or here (as a list, or part of another note or list), which is very handy.
RSS: Keep Abreast with Really Simple Syndicaton
Attentive users of Safari may have noticed that some web sites show a little blue box with the white letters “RSS” next to their URL in the Safari location bar. What this means is that the web page uses a service called “really simple syndication” or “RSS” to make it easier to skim and track new articles. Many blogs do this, as do many news sites. Indeed the entire concept of a podcast in iTunes is based on the marriage of RSS to an audio or video file. The new Mail 3.0 includes the option to view RSS feeds within the mail program. It is not as robust as options such as RSS Menu or NetNewsWire but for someone who has a dozen or two sites that they like to scan or keep track of without launching a separate application, this feature provides an option that integrates well with other messages. Rather than surfing a dozen sites each day in Safari, simply look for updates in the RSS section of Mail and then view the messages as you would read an email message. Depending on how the RSS feed is configured, you may be able to read the entire article in Mail or have the option to double-click it and view it online with Safari or another web browser.
Extracting Information with Apple Data Detectors
Years ago as part of Cyberdog and various other projects, Apple had a technology called “Apple Data Detectors” which would analyze textual information and make intelligent guesses about what it was from the formatting. This allowed programs to guess from the format if a text string was an email address, a web URL, a date, a phone number or a postal address, with all of the utility this implied. Some of this technology got folded into “hotlinks” in various programs and contextual menus, but it has reappeared in a new way with Mail 3.0, which can make intelligent guesses about data type within email messages.
To see how this works in Mail 3.0 you may wish to find a message which contains a date of some sort. Depending on how the date is formatted, a small box may appear around it when your cursor is over it, with a small downward-pointing arrow to the right. This arrow gives options such as “Show This Date in iCal” or “Create New iCal Event…” right there from within Mail. One can similarly highlight any string of text and then “control-click” to bring up a contextual menu which gives you the option to create a new “to-do,” again without leaving Mail. Both of these are automatically added to your iCal appointment and to-do lists, where they can be synchronized to your iPod or iTunes device if you choose, based on preferences you set within iTunes. The same thing happens with telephone numbers, allowing one to readily display them in large type (for easier dialing), to create a new contact from the phone number or add a phone number to an existing contact.
While immediately useful in obvious ways, I suspect that most people will think of ways to use these data detectors for their own special purposes and preferences. Watch for these in Mail 3.0 as your cursor hovers around
- Dates (create event or show date in iCal)
- Phone Numbers (large type, add to contact or create new contact)
- ZIP Codes (add to contact or create new contact in Address Book)
- Email Addresses (new message, create contact, add to contact)
- Highlighted text (look up in dictionary, on Google or create new to-do)
Using Smart Filters in Mail 3.0
Mail 2.0 introduced the concept of “Smart Mailboxes” which are similar to “Smart Playlists” from iTunes, “Smart Albums” from iPhoto or “Smart Groups” in Address Book. Basically these are pre-filtered lists of items that meet certain criteria that you define. This can be used in obvious ways to do such things as to display all unread messages from the last week for a given email account, but can also be used in new and interesting ways. Although called “Smart Mailboxes” such filters can actually be used to isolate pretty much anything within Mail, including notes containing tasks or unread RSS feeds from within the last week. A few of these default “smart mailboxes” are configured for you, but for folks who receive a lot of messages or have many projects to handle, this can save a huge amount of time and let the computer do some of your work to keep certain projects “top of mind.”
Go Out and Play
When OS X Mail first came out I was not a huge fan, but Apple has been growing the product steadily. The current version integrates beautifully with Address Book and iCal, while adding features such as Notes and To-Do’s that people have long expected and used in the “real world” of legal pads and index cards. How you will use these features is, of course, up to you, but I hope to make you aware of their existence.
Mail 3.0 is the best version of Apple Mail yet. For assistance on how you can use it to help you increase pleasure, decrease frustration and improve productivity, please consider phoning Mac Rory at (360) 695-6929.