Microsoft and Yahoo are poised to make Web-based e-mail more powerful than ever with updates that bring a desktop-style interface to their respective Web mail offerings.
As Ajax applications, the mail clients we tested can preload information and update their displays on the fly. So when you open up an e-mail message, you'll see it immediately, rather than having to wait for it to download. And when you delete a message, the application can update instantly, even though the delete request is still being processed in the background.
Yahoo Mail offers desktop-like features such as a full complement of familiar hot-keys and the ability to use the <Ctrl> and <Shift> keys to select multiple messages. Although it's only a beta, the application is graceful, powerful, and nuanced. Its three-pane layout mirrors that of desktop apps such as Microsoft's Outlook Express and Mozilla's Thunderbird.
Yahoo Mail also mimics the handy tab feature included in many Web browsers, allowing you to open multiple messages in a single window and switch between them without loading a new page. Thanks to some intricate coding, you can quickly delve deep into your inbox, using the familiar scroll bar or the <Page Down> key.
Yahoo Mail's search shines, reaching into attachments as well as e-mail messages, and showing the document snippet where the search term was found. Yahoo Mail also interacts logically with your browser's back button--often a trouble spot for Ajax apps that continually update one "page" in the browser. In contrast, Gmail disables the back button, while Zimbra warns you that using it will log you out.
Windows Live Mail
If you're not familiar with desktop mail apps, Microsoft's Windows Live Mail, which feels more like a tweak to Hotmail than a total rethinking of Web mail, may be a better fit. Like Yahoo Mail, Live Mail lets you drag and drop messages, and right-click to print, forward, and answer messages without opening them first. Live Mail puts its weight on tools that let users add emoticons and formatting to e-mail, and it also integrates powerful calendar, antispam, and antiphishing functions.
The Live Mail service we tested, which Microsoft emphasizes is still a very early beta, uses a three-column layout similar to Microsoft Outlook's. A scrollable inbox, on-the-fly spelling checking, and enhanced right-click menus are on tap for the next beta.
The beta of Zimbra's open-source offering was rougher around the edges, marred by small, cryptic interface icons and some bugs in the version we tested. But its search and virus protection are good, and Zimbra sports some nifty calendar integration--users can mouse over dates in e-mail to see what activities they have scheduled that day.
But Zimbra's real strength is as a full-fledged communication server, allowing a company to integrate its databases so users can, say, jump from a message with an order number to the order database itself.
Zimbra doesn't offer individual accounts, but broadband providers such as Speakeasy are looking at using it to replace their current Web mail offerings.
Zimbra is available to enterprises right now, and Yahoo and Microsoft each hope to introduce their new interface to their millions of users in the first half of 2006.