Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

First Thunderbird, now Sparrow…

Sparrow and GoogleI’m not having a good time with email clients. Earlier this month we learned that Thunderbird would not get any major feature updates in future (development will continue but Mozilla has reduced Thunderbird’s resources). And now Sparrow, my favoured email client on Mac OS X and on my iPhone, has been acquired by Google.

This may not sound like bad news but, alas, this is a ‘talent acquisition’ – a bit like when Facebook bought Gowalla last year. In other words, the people behind Sparrow will be working on new projects at Google, specifically on the Gmail teams, and won’t be doing any further work on Sparrow itself – this was confirmed by a Google spokesperson to Macstories. We can expect ongoing support for Sparrow, but no new features.

The Mac OS X version is reasonably complete in terms of features – in fact, it has just been updated for the new Retina displays in Apple’s latest MacBook Pro, and presumably will work with Mountain Lion without any problems. As for the iOS version, it can do almost everything that the stock email client for the iPhone can do (and more), but with the notable exception of push notifications of new email messages. This was likely to be a premium feature due to how push notifications work on iOS with background apps. Presumably, today’s announcement means that this won’t be forthcoming; similarly, a rumoured iPad app is now unlikely to be released.

Whilst I’m happy for Sparrow’s developers to be recognised for their talent, and presumably Google were able to give them an offer that they could not refuse, this potentially leaves Sparrow’s users in the lurch. Of course, there’s a limit to what you can do with what was always intended to be a simple email client – part of the reason for the slowdown of Thunderbird development – but the iOS client in particular showed a lot of promise that now won’t be realised.

The likelihood of Sparrow finding a new home in Google was slim in any case; Google doesn’t tend to do much in the way of desktop software (Chrome, Drive, Earth and Picasa are the only major exceptions) and there’s already an official Gmail app for iOS, which has been updated recently and, crucially, supports push notifications. And keeping Sparrow going at Google whilst its developers focus on other things would have been a distraction.

I hope that, instead, Sparrow offer to sell the branding rights and source code to somebody else, to keep it going. Or, better yet, make it open source, so that the community can keep it going. On iOS, the jailbreak community have already written various enhancements, such as Sparrow+.

I suppose I’ll have to investigate Apple’s own Mail app in Mountain Lion. I tried to use it recently as an alternative to Thunderbird, but in Lion it feels over-complicated and poorly designed.

Addendum: There’s an interesting post from Elezea which I also agree with.

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