Review of 3 Key macOS Email Apps

Review of 3 Key macOS Email Apps

In July last year I reviewed several new(ish) email apps for macOS. I really have no idea why. I’m not a tech product review guy, my reviews are apropos nothing really. Just a take on what remains the killer app of the internet era today. Sorry Slack, Troll, Asana et al, but thats reality. Now there’s a new player on the block, Spark, where another has fallen by the wayside and new one may be on the horizon. So, let’s dive in on my take. And as an FYI, I use an early 2017 MacBook Pro 15″ with touchbar. I’ll have some commentary on that.

Spark Email App Review
This email app came out for iOS and macOS earlier in 2016 and according to Readdle, it’s maker, it is still in beta. In short, I love it, well, the macOS version, not so strong on the UI design for iOS, but that’s just design preference on my end, functionally, it works brilliantly. I find it the cleanest UI of them all for macOS. Spark brings in features in a subtle, yet highly functional way. It sets up nice and easy with Google, Exchange and others. You can find it here. It did, rightly, receive Best of Apple 2016 too. The touchbar integration works great by the way. No issues.

Some cool features of Spark:

  • Quick Replies: You can set up some quick replies like a thumbs up or smiley face (these are customizable) for quick responses. In etiquette terms it’s a nice way to respond quickly and acknowledge the sender.
  • Segmenting: You can have a unified inbox view and it has an unobtrusive way of separating the accounts, plus newsletters, personal, pins and snoozed emails in a very intuitive way.
  • Conversation Strings: Pretty much all email clients do this today, but Spark seems to have developed the cleanest way I’ve seen.
  • Functional Integrations: They’ve added the ability to send emails to Evernote, Things, ToDo and others. In a very intuitive way again. They plan to add more.
  • Calendaring: While I wish they’d integrate the calendar like Outlook does, the iOS version is very good (better than PolyMail or Mail) and it synchs nicely with the 3 Google Calendar accounts I use and mixes in with Mac’s native Calendar app. You can accept etc., right within the email which is nice.
  • Customizable: Slowly, Spark is getting there with customization. It’s pretty good now, close to Airmail 3.

Downsides:

  • Calendar: I think the macOS could be better with an integrated calendar right in the app. This is no small task mind you. it hasn’t replaced Fantastical for me yet.
  • Signatures: Very weak in being able to do much with signatures, even trying to reduce text and change colours. Needs beefing up. A lot.
  • iOS UX: Spark on iOS is functional and it works nice, but I still find it kind of brutalist. The elegance of the desktop app is not there, so for mobile I am sticking with Outlook for iOS.
  • Deep Integration: If you want to get rid of Spark, be forewarned that it embeds itself very deeply into macOS. I was very angry when I found that Spark had somehow gotten into my Notes and taken out some personal data. I had to mess with the code to stop this. That’s a privacy violation in my books.

Right now, Spark is free. I’d happily pay between $10 and $20 for the app though. I hope they aren’t silly like PolyMail and charge $10/month for a single user. It’s very fast and the search capability has improved a lot and is very good.

AirMail 3
This email app has won Apple’s design award for apps for 2016. It is nicely designed, but I find it is not as well designed as Spark. It can be cluttered I find and the way they’ve drawn the icons to me looks like wobbly crayon style. But that’s personal taste. AirMail offers great integration with other services including Fantastical. Setting up accounts is clean and fast. The app is very reliable on both iOS and macOS. AirMail 3 is a powerhouse for productivity folks. More than Spark right now, but I have little doubt there’s going to be some strong competition between the two very soon. You can find it here.

Downsides of AirMail 3

  • Still “cluttered” with email conversation strings, which can be difficult to navigate and the UI elements mixed in can be frustrating when trying to take action. Spark does this better.
  • UX Crayon Drawings: They’ve straightened them up from the initial version, but to me they still look amateur.
  • Calendaring: While you can engage with calendar invites, AirMail too could do better. I find Spark handles invites much better and more reliably than AirMail.

AirMail allows a lot of customization and is a reliable app. It’s good and worth the $10.99, especially if you connect to a whole lot of other productivity apps. Search works well in AirMail 3 and the app is fast. Especially if you have an SSD drive. Touchbar integration works fine and is functional. Now if Touchbar would stop crashing and popping all the time, which Apple is grossly in denial of, that would be great.

PolyMail
This app came out in 2016 and I tried the beta. Then they went to paid and a very silly paid model in my view. The minimum price starts at $10/month or $120/year. For what they’re offering, that’s pretty steep for an email app and I’m not buying. PolyMail is a “bit more” than an email app and in some ways is trying to be a new Outlook hybrid with added ability to track emails sent and when they’re opened, including when attachments are downloaded and something they call campaigns. Sos it can be useful for small teams for its integration. For solopreneurs though, it’s a bit over the top in price terms. Also, for email tracking purposes, you need to enable PolyMail to have access to your traffic.

PolyMail has a nice UX, though I found it a bit overly “light” and had trouble with the conversation strings, again, something that Spark has done very nicely. Account setup is easy. A very nice feature is the way they do contacts on a sidebar. Great information and can be extremely powerful for a sales team/person. I really liked that feature. You can find it here.

Downsides:

  • Calendar Integration: I struggled with it in beta, then went to a 14 day trial and struggled with it again. No matter what I tried, the calendar function promised never worked. Their customer support is good, but the app failed to work.
  • UX Design: It’s very nice and quite clean like Spark, but also very “light” and can be hard on the eyes after a while.
  • Price: While PolyMail is a very nice app, I don’t think it’s ready for primetime based on my spotty experience and at $120/yr for a single user when AirMail 3 and Spark are productivity tools and AirMail 3 is only $10.99, well. I think PolyMail should offer a one time price, limiting some functions, for a single user option.

Overall

For me, Spark is heading in a great direction and I love the app. It’s proven more reliable in beta than AirMail 3 and PolyMail as paid apps playing in primetime. The UX truly is clean, it’s fast too. I find the Spark team good with customer service and they’re listening to feedback. PolyMail is nice, if not trying a little too hard to be cool looking and rather oddly priced.

There are a number of other options including Outlook by Microsoft, which is slowly getting better but has the bloatware history of Microsoft and the UX while better, still needs a lot of work (you can’t even customize the toolbar ribbon! Come on Microsoft!) And there’s no 3rd party integrations with Outlook. There’s Nylas N1 and a few others, but the above three seem the cleanest and best functioning. Everyone will find their own value at the end of the day and it’s really what suits your workflow and what design approach you like best. Personally, my money is on Spark.

What’s your favourite email app for macOS and why?

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A Snap Lesson from Snap

A Snap Lesson from Snap

The pundits are already sounding the death knell for Snap after it’s poor performance last week. It doesn’t help that at every step Facebook has copied Snaps’ coolest features to Instagram or its own platform. Snap is, unfortunately, perfectly primed to fail. There are three primary reasons why.

  1. The Easy Stuff is Done: Snap, then SnapChat, entered the market with a value proposition to hit the youth market. They did that well. The app isn’t that easy to use but most of all, unlike Facebook the parents weren’t there. But the problem is, the easy stuff is done. MySpace died for lack of innovation. Facebook has everyones address book. People are lazy. They don’t like to re-establish all their connections and followers unless porting them is easy. And if their friends come over. This is why LinkedIn has cornered the professional social network segment, Reddit the forums sector and Twitter the microblogging segment. Any new disruptor is going to have to find a very strong value proposition.
  2. Lack of Unique Technology or IP: While Snap does have some cool tech, like its glasses, it doesn’t have anything patentable (although a patent has its dangers too) or unique enough to be acquired or be highly differentiated. Competitor platforms like Instagram and Facebook have significantly more market share. They can easily copy and port over the features of Snap and reach a broader audience, thus further reducing consumer desire to switch.
  3. A Fickle Demographic: Snap, like Twitter, is struggling to find revenue opportunities. Its primary demographic is under 25 and that’s a fickle market for brand loyalty at the best of times. Given that its prime segment is 11-18, well that’s even worse and they have little disposable income and are very anti-advertising. Even though some major, older demographic brands set up Snap accounts, they haven’t gained much traction and many brands and marketers have abandoned Snap as too difficult a platform and little to no return on campaigns.

Can Snap survive? Possibly. It isn’t dead yet. They could come out with some really cool feature that Facebook or someone else can’t copy. They might become a sort of underdog like Apple was for years and secure a small, but loyalty and potentially profitable market. This is though, highly unlikely. They are now prime for acquisition by Facebook, Google, Amazon or Apple (GAFA as they’re sometimes known.)

Any startup considering entering the social media space and trying to knock down Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc., may want to second-think that. They were the easy things to do in the tech space and social media. Where opportunity lies is in building tools and services that integrate into these existing channels with a good monetization strategy. These won’t be easy, but they’ll likely be more financially lucrative.

What do you think?

Smarthomes: The Big Challenges

Smarthomes: The Big Challenges
The smarthome market, meaning the home where your fridge, stove, microwave, lights, furnace and perhaps soon your toilet, are all connected via WiFi and managed through your smartphone, is set to reach $137 Billion by 2023. This according to research firm MarketsandMarkets. The first major entrant into this space was thermostat company, Nest. Google bought Nest a few years ago. The smarthome market is part of what is termed the Internet-of-Things (IoT), which includes just about anything you can stuff a sensor and WiFi connection into. This market is growing, there is little doubt. Yet it is facing some tough problems. In order for the smarthome market to truly take off however, these problems will need solving.
Interoperability
A major issue is getting these various devices, such as thermostats, smoke detectors, light controls, TV’s and sound systems, to all play nicely together.  It doesn’t help when you have to access several apps to do different things. Consumers are lazy, so IoT devices need to think from the perspective of laziness. Most don’t. There are some “home hubs” on the market that can do this, sort of, most of the time. Amazon’s Alexia is going down this path and of course, Apple has HomeKit and their new speaker called HomeHub coming this fall. Which brings us to the next issue; complexity.
Complexity
The Nest and Phillips HUE are fairly easy to set up as are others. While most may be easy to set up on their own, having several of them brings complexity to the whole thing. This is a huge barrier to adoption for consumers, even more so than interoperability. This usually results in the geek of the house setting them up and managing them. Then other family members have to download the apps and get everything working. Another barrier.
Uptime and Downtime
All of these devices rely on consistent WiFi in the home. While it’s getting better, even broadband can be spotty at the best of times. Not very helpful on a cold evening when you want to turn the heat up as you pick up groceries on the way home. A secondary issue is demand placed on the router and data collisions as devices compete for bandwidth. Too many devices can wreak havoc on a WiFi router.
Security
This is the 800 Lb gorilla in the room. And it’s a nasty one. There have been a number of issues with smarthome devices being hacked, either within the home or the company’s data centre. IoT device makers have been notoriously lax in their security, mostly in rush to get products to market and make them easy to use.
Value Proposition
Then there’s the value proposition. People adopt technologies that reduce or eliminate work or improve their lifestyle in some other unique way. The most successful of the smarthome devices to date have been thermostats. Light bulbs that change colour are cool, but a luxury at best.
These are the major issues smarthome devices face today and will have to address in the near future. It is likely that companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft will create the “hubs” that make interoperability work. To a large degree this makes sense. But no doubt the likes of Amazon and Apple will find a way to make it a pay-to-play deal for device makers.
What issues do you see? If you have a smarthome device, how has your experience been?

The Smarthome: The Golden Market Being Missed?

The Smarthome: The Golden Market Being Missed?

The race to bring IoT or Internet-of-Things devices to consumer homes is a few years old now. Right now, it’s a plodding sort of race. Most people are familiar with the Nest home thermostat, then their smoke detector that has had its share of issues. There’s the rather fun but nowhere near essential Phillips Hue lightbulbs that you can change colours with from your smartphone. It is very early days for these connected devices. Yet adoption remains small market scale.

The Real Opportunity for IoT Devices In The Home

Where the real opportunity to build a beachhead market rests is with the 60+ market. And the competition is beginning to heat up for this market. There are several key factors why smarthome device markers would do well to target this market;

  1. Higher disposable income (on average) than “Millennials” (which are not really a logical market segment anyway.)
  2. They’re adopting smartphones and tablets quite happily and at scale.
  3. Smarthome devices can offer family connection security

Those aged 35 and under often don’t have significant disposable income, so smarthome devices remain a luxury more than a need. Products that fill needs always do better than those that fill a want. It’s a basic marketing principle that remains valid even in a digital age. Research by the PEW Centre shows how those 55+ are adopting smartphones and tablets as the image from The Economist shows below;

Smarthome devices that will likely underperform in the 60+ market are those with always-on cameras. An older generation finds cameras invasive and they take their privacy very seriously. Smarthome products that will likely succeed are those that use sound and spacial monitoring. One such device is HomeExcept, a very clever device that uses thermal sensing to monitor a home for patterns. If there’s one constant as we age it’s that we like our patterns, or daily routines if you will. The HomeExcept provides a mobile dashboard via a smartphone app that kids or care takers can monitor. It’s subtle and hangs out in the background and relies on the cellular network rather than potentially spotty WiFi. Clever. Such invisible devices are more likely to succeed with senior citizens.

Devices like the Amazon Echo could have applications built on them that leverage sound monitoring for similar patterns. The added benefit is that they can also be used for ordering need products like milk or detergent.

Positioned properly, smarthome devices for seniors stand to be an excellent entrance market for IoT device creators. Eventually we will see smart toilets that have built-in sensors to monitor blood sugars, hydration and perhaps other health conditions. If smartphone apps are tied to these devices it will force makers to develop very good UX or they will fail. Designing for seniors forces simplicity, which will translate well into other, younger market segments.

Smarthome creators would do well to look harder at the 60+ market, perhaps pivoting to this market for initial entry. There’s more money available than younger markets in both disposable income and healthcare for the 60+ market such as care homes. The population in the developed world is ageing. Done right, smarthome devices can solve a lot of problems. But developing the marketing message and positioning must be as carefully thought out as the UX and underlying technologies.

What do you think?

Is It Time for an International Cybercrime Court?

Is It Time for an International Cybercrime Court?
It seems not a day goes by that we don’t hear about some form of ransomware, major database theft or breach of a corporate or government network. Then there’s fake news and alleged election hacking across a number of western democracies. There is little doubt that cyber crime is on the rise. But how do governments deal with it?
Jurisdictions, Prosecution & The Burden of Security
Each country has a different approach to cyber crime laws. And they all vary in the degree to which they proceed with prosecuting them. The other major challenge is that cybercrime today is often conducted from a country outside the target. This is certainly the case with alleged election tampering, ransomware and data thefts. Corporations and governments are struggling to deal with the rising threats and right now the heaviest burden rests on them to implement better cybersecurity practices.
An International Cybercrime Court?
Even when cyber criminals are identified, if they’re outside the country where the crime takes place, catching and then prosecuting them is hard. Extradition treaties need to be in place and the justice system in the country where the crime originated has to have some motivation to assist. Unfortunately, many of these attacks come from countries where such motivation is minimal and treaties don’t exist. And obtaining proof can be burdensome at best. And what about when the crime, such as wannacry, potentially comes from a foreign state actor?
Solving geopolitical cybercrime is complex and there is no easy answer. Perhaps though, it is time to consider an international cybercrime court? Modelled off the ICC (International Criminal Court?) Perhaps it could be added to the ICC run from The Hague?
Such a court however, would require countries to sign on and agree to the rules of conduct and bringing alleged perpetrators to justice. Not a simple task by any means. It would be expensive as well. Then there’s agreeing to legal commonalities, data and privacy laws. And of course, at what point is a cybercrime considered serious enough to warrant such a degree of prosecution?
Certainly this is no easy task. There are many other issues to consider. There are estimates on the costs of cybercrime, but it’s hard to know for sure; some companies never report breaches and some don’t know about them for months or years. Then too, is the question of whether such an approach would even deter cybercriminals at all?
What do you think?

Algorithms Explained in Plain English

Algorithms Explained in Plain English
All too often we hear startups pitching their product as having “algorithms” and therefore Artificial Intelligence or AI. The term AI and algorithms are tossed about like popcorn in a movie theatre. And algorithms are simply the butter you lavishly heap on your popcorn; makes it taste better, but it’s not AI. So what are algorithms and how do they apply to AI? You can’t have AI without algorithms, but they aren’t AI in and of itself.
An Algorithm Explained
Quite simply, an algorithm is nothing more than a recipe. It’s not the ingredients that go into the recipe, it’s the process, the steps in a recipe. An algorithm would tell you the process to make a stew through each step; cook stew meat, finely chop vegetables, add beef broth, add in broth and vegetables to meat, heat until ready. You can use the same algorithm every time you make the stew, except you may add different spices or vegetables, which is the “data” or ingredients. Humans have been using algorithms for thousands of years.
Getting to Artificial Intelligence
Algorithms are at the core of AI. Laid over top of algorithms are probability calculations. These calculations use data and today, often massive amounts of data, what we now call Big Data. Then there’s machine learning, natural language processing, neural networks, cognitive computing, pattern recognition and so on. AI can consist of these various elements mixed together in different ways. Algorithms are the processes of bringing all these ingredients together and telling them what to do.
This is a highly simplified explanation of what makes up AI and the role of the algorithm. But an algorithm alone is not AI.
The Rise of the Algorithm
As our physical world has become fused with the digital world (phygital if you will), algorithms play an ever more important role. It is algorithms that are the secret sauce for Google for their search engine. For IBM Watson and other advanced computing platforms. Their importance can’t be overstated. Creating really good algorithms is an exceptional skill that pays very well if you are good at it.
To a large degree, the word “algorithm” has been latched upon by marketers (I’m guilty of this) as well as startups and news media to the point it’s almost become a sort of meme. If you understand the place and role of an algorithm however, you can better understand how emerging technologies are being pitched and packaged.

Top 7 Toughest Marketing Challenges

Top 7 Toughest Marketing Challenges
This is a great time to be in marketing. It’s also a very tough time to be in marketing. I’ve been marketing technology and biotech for over 25 years and co-founded the ad creative awards program Ice Awards in 2001. I’ve never seen such challenges. Let’s take a look.
  1. Digital Ad Conundrum: Brands are increasingly shifting their budgets to digital channels. This is a boon and a nightmare for agencies. With ad blockers on the rise and consumers learning to ignore ads it creates a conundrum for marketers.
  2. Marketing Automation: With so many digital channels and the rise of mobile, the tech industry has responded with an abundance of marketing automation tools. The challenge for marketers is to find the right mix and then there’s the challenge of #1 above coming into play.
  3. Analytics Overload: With all these digital tools comes a dearth of analytics. Social media monitoring, web analytics (each having their own methodology), Big Data analytics and so on. The debate on what to measure, how and why has been raging for well over a decade.
  4. Geopolitics: Digital channel giants Facebook, YouTube and Google are facing an ethical dilemma; monitoring for terrorism and human rights abuses and how much responsibility they bear. Marketers have to now be more aware than ever of geopolitical issues.
  5. Social Norms and Rules: With the current U.S. political climate and the earth’s climate, brands are making political and social stands unlike ever before. This can build brand loyalty and also alienate some segments. But marketers now have to have an eye on societal issues unlike ever before.
  6. Educating Marketers: Look at almost any marketing job description today and brands are calling for skills/certifications in HubSpot, Google Ad Words and analytics…brands want skills universities are lagging behind on teaching. Students need to get certifications beyond a marketing degree just for entry level jobs.
  7. Emerging Technologies: From Virtual and Augmented Reality to Artificial Intelligence and cryptocurrencies. These technologies offer some exciting opportunities, but for marketers, the challenge is how to leverage them and when to invest.

These are the main challenges I see today. There are, no doubt, more. What do you see?