Mutt Sucks Less

I use a mail client called mutt. The quality of this software may largely explain my opinion this post on the continued relevance of email

I think mutt warrants a bit of extra attention for two reasons. First, because I think there are enough people out there who don't use mutt who could and perhaps should, and I'd like to do a little encouraging; and second,like all fundamentally wonderful pieces of software, mutt can teach us something important about what makes technology great and pleasurable to use.

Working with any new kind of software is always a challenge. It is unfortunate that "features" and "functions" are the currency by which we judge software. Which is unfair to both the technology and ourselves, as the utility and quality of these features/functions depends on a number of subjective/individual factors. That said, with regards to mutt, my list is as follows:

  • Mutt is agnostic on the editor question. I suspect the fact that I could use any text editor I wanted to write email was probably my original reason for switching to mutt in the first place. It's amazing what a sane editing experience can do for the overall experience of writing emails.
  • Support for PGP/GPG encryption. Signing and encrypting emails with PGP is probably only a minor advantage, and of limited actual utility, but I think it's important and valuable to have this capability in your email client. After all, the success of PGP depends on a crowd effect: if it's easy, sign all your email and hope that others will join you. Mutt makes this easy, which is a good thing indeed.
  • Mutt operates independently of mail transmission protocols, which are universally flawed. In many ways, by not including support for mail transmission, mutt is more useful and more flexible than it would be if it was designed to handle mail transmission. Having said that, recent versions of mutt have internal support for IMAP/POP/SMUT. Not that I'd use it or recommend that you do use it and I suspect most mutt users don't either.
  • Mutt operates independently of mail storage format: you can maintain complete control over your mail data, and store email pretty much however you like. While this may be a burden to some, I'm somewhat controlling when it comes to data storage and preservation, and I think email archives are incredibly important. And I'm a weirdo about email storage.
  • Mutt's "sidebar patch" isn't even a part of the core of the software, but it's absolutely crucial to my experience of the software. Basically it gives you a heads-up-display of your mailboxes and tells you at a glance: if there are new messages and how many messages (new, flagged, read) are in an mailbox. While it eats into some screen real estate, it's generally unused screen space and it's more than worth the expenditure of pixels.
  • Mutt runs on console and can be compiled on pretty much any contemporary UNIX-like system. Chances are there are packages for most operating system. So I feel pretty confident that I'll pretty much be able to use mutt no matter what kind of system I end up using. Also console apps generally run pretty well in screen, which makes them accessible (and persistent) across the internet.

Onward and Upward!

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