07 April, 2022

Posted by Phill

If at first you don't succeed…

When I set out to build Big Mail, I had strong opinions on how email should work and what would make a great email app. Well, let me tell you, nothing will reshape your opinions faster than having tens of thousands of people using your app overnight.

While today many thousands of people have found their flow with Big Mail, it's clear by the abysmal 2.9 rating on the App Store that it's not met most people's expectations.

Technical and compatibility issues plagued the product. Well-intended design decisions ended up being clumsy in practice. The lack of customisation forced just one workflow. And I had underestimated the importance of specific features: push notifications and folders, to name but two.

Screenshot of Big Mail and the Mail app on the App Store with a 2.9 star rating
2.9 stars on the App Store – but hey, at least we're in good company...?

Thankfully my strong opinions were loosely held. After months of speaking to hundreds of customers, the result is Big Mail 2: a massive update that revisits pasts decisions and adds tons of new features to help you have a more productive and enjoyable inbox.

Today, I want to give a sneak preview of some of the changes. But first, a sincere thank you to everyone who purchased a subscription. You've enabled Big Mail's continued development, so thank you. 💌

A new refined design

The first thing you'll notice about Big Mail 2 is how it looks. Every screen has been reworked to help you get things done faster. By leaning on native design conventions across the app, screens appear familiar and, as a result, easier to use.

Screenshot of the Big Mail 2 homescreen, which takes cues from the Reminders app.
Same old, brand new: Big Mail 2 takes cues from system apps like Reminders and Mail that you already know how to use.

A more organised home screen has replaced the busy (and sometimes disorientating) tab bar design of Big Mail 1.

Scenes are also gaining several new layouts. The new "Expanded List" offers large, rich previews of your messages and makes controls like archive and reply just a single tap.

Screenshot of Big Mail 2's new expanded list layout.
The new "Expanded List" layout puts everyday actions at your fingertips.

Another new layout is the "Thumbnail List", perfect for newsletters (Big News users will already be familiar with this). And yes, Big Mail now has swipe actions!

Screenshot of Big Mail 2's new thumbnail list layout.
Screenshot of Big Mail 2 swipe actions.
The new "Thumbnails" layout, plus swipe actions come to Big Mail.

Though probably one of my favourite new layouts is "Todos", which turns your emails into…todos. This is really useful if you have threads that need to be 'completed', for example, dealing with customer support queries.

Big Mail 2 Todo list
Turn your emails into actionable todos.

Scene Shortcuts

Big Mail was initially designed around the workflow of "read it and leave it", which is great if you like to keep messages in your inbox but not so great if you want to archive everything once you've read it.

Big Mail 2 introduces Scene Shortcuts, which allow you to perform bulk actions on Scene with a single tap. Some examples of shortcuts include:

  • Archive all messages
  • Archive all messages that have been read
  • Mark all unanswered messages as unread

Shortcuts are configurable on a per Scene basis, allowing you to build powerful context-aware workflows.

Big Mail 2 Todo list
Turn your emails into actionable todos.

Build your own Scenes

Scenes have been completely reworked to be entirely customisable. Every aspect of them can be tweaked: from the layout, buttons, and underlying filters. You can quite literally build your own mail app.

Big Mail 2 Todo list
Filter picker
Turn your emails into actionable todos.

Not only can you fine-tune the default Scenes to your tastes, but you can also create your own from scratch. Big Mail exposes the underlying ML classifier in the form of Smart Tags and gives you a suite of filters to program your own totally custom Scene.

Custom scene
Symbol picker
Turn your emails into actionable todos.

Labels and Folders

Something noticeably absent from Big Mail 1 was folders. Big Mail 2 not only introduces custom folders but, as far as I can tell, will be the first IMAP client to support native Gmail and Fastmail labels. This means you can tag a single message with multiple labels just like you can in the Gmail/Fastmail app or web interface.

Big Mail 2 label picker
Big Mail 2 brings native Gmail/Fastmail labels and folders.

What can I say: folders probably should have been there on day one. But whilst they are overdue, I think Big Mail will have the best implementation of them.

Push notifications

Oh man – notifications. Big Mail 1 notifications work by checking for new messages on your device in the background. The problem has been that iOS makes no guarantees of when this will happen, as battery life, app usage, and time of day all come into play. This means notifications arrive delayed (if at all). Trying to explain this to customers is a daily support nightmare – and at the end of the day, people shouldn't have to care: it should just work.

So Big Mail 2 introduces real-time push notifications. This has been really tricky to do whilst still preserving privacy, as push notifications require the use of a sever. And after all, one of the main reasons I created Big Mail was to avoid having emails sitting on some third party server, which is how most other email apps work.

Big Mail 2 notification
Rich real-time notifications come to Big Mail 2.

Big Mail 2's push service will be entirely optional, and the whole thing acts as a simple relay to your device. No emails are stored anywhere on our servers (not even cached), and access can be revoked at any time.

The Big News app (amongst being a cool little Big Mail spin-off) has been a relatively low stakes way of testing this in the wild and seeing what it takes to run a push service. So far, so good!

Overall I think this solution is an excellent balance between privacy and convenience.

A fast new modern mail engine: SwiftIMAP

Big Mail's current mail engine is based on a fork of LibEtPan, a C library that was originally used in the popular Sparrow mail app. Whilst useful as a springboard to launch Big Mail, the library is showing its age: it doesn't support new IMAP features like quick sync, and my awkward 'C Bridge' to Swift is the source of many crashes and errors in Big Mail.

SwiftIMAP (along with SwiftEmail) is an entirely Swift implementation of the IMAP protocol. SwiftIMAP uses brand new Swift language features like async/await, drastically simplifying code, reducing the surface area of bugs and speeding up critical operations like syncing. This will have a real and noticeable impact on the everyday usage of the app.

SwiftIMAP documenation
SwiftIMAP will be published on Github as a Swift Package later this year.

SwiftIMAP will be entirely open-source and free to use for non-commercial applications (with a favourable commercial license option available). More details soon.

Big Mail 2 will launch as a new app later this year

Big Mail is a really complex product, so adding significant new features like this has taken time. I want to thank existing customers for their patience, as I acknowledge there has been a slow down in recent months of new features and updates. While version 2 is a priority, a couple of new updates are still coming to version 1.

Also, as you can hopefully tell by this, I plan on sharing much more, more often. One of the reasons for this post was to get feedback much earlier in the process and give much more context (plus, I know some of you are interested in this sort of thing).

Follow our Twitter to be the first to know when prerelease builds are available (we'll initially be prioritising existing Big Mail customers).

Once again, thanks for all your support, and I can't wait to get Big Mail 2 in your hands.

💌 Phill