Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Missing Agent's mail routing

The process of trying to move from Forté Agent to an IMAP mail client, Thunderbird specifically, has been a really mixed bag.

The process of setting up Thunderbird to handle my email, replicating my folders, and setting up identities (the equivalent of Agent's personas, though not quite as rich in features) only took an hour or so. And with that, I'm getting my email, and having it synch with my phone just fine.

However, it's really hitting home how limited other clients are at handling some things Agent is brilliant at, and the most painful of these is mail routing. If you haven't used Agent, you probably think that whatever your client does to route mail into folders is perfectly fine -- you're just so used to having to do things that your computer could do better that you don't think about it. I am spoiled rotten, it turns out. And so should everyone be.

I'll use my friend Joe in my example of how Agent handles mail routing. I first met Joe through my roleplaying group, so the first time I ever got an email from him, it was about roleplaying. So I dragged it into my Roleplaying folder. Agent immediately asked me whether I wanted to just move the mail, or remember that mail from Joe goes to the Roleplaying folder in future (which is what I chose), or if all mail from the entire domain should go to that folder. So basically, by doing something I was doing anyway -- dragging a mail into a folder -- I gave Agent a chance to learn how I wanted things done, without me having to think about filters or anything. But wait, that's just the start.

This got associated with Joe's entry (automatically created and populated) in my address book. Agent is now smart enough to know that when I send mail to Joe, it should go into the Roleplaying folder, unless I say otherwise. When Joe changes his email address, I don't have to remember to change it in several places, just in the address book. But wait, it gets better.

Later, Joe was playing in my Uncreated game, for which I have another folder. One day he sent me an email about that. Agent put it in the Roleplaying folder, but I immediately moved it into the Uncreated subfolder. Agent then asked me what to do. Just do the move, or replace the previous routing, or add to it, which is what I chose. Now Agent knows emails from Joe can go into either the Roleplaying or Uncreated folder.

So what does it do when an email comes from Joe? Well, it has previously used Bayesian analysis on the text in all the emails from Joe in both folders, so it knows what words and phrases tend to appear more in one or the other. It analyzes the incoming email the same way. If it finds words that give it a sufficiently high confidence that the mail belongs in one or the other, it puts it there. If not, it puts it in a default. If it guesses wrong, and I move the message, or indeed if I move any message for any reason, it recalculates the analyses. The more emails I get from Joe, the smarter it gets at knowing where to file them automatically. And at no point do I have to do anything to make this happen, or keep it happening as things change, except for occasionally move an email to the folder it should have gone to.

If I poured way too much of my time into making very smart filters, I could never hope to achieve anything comparable to this in Thunderbird. More to the point, why should I be the one spending the time to figure the filters out? Agent is essentially making, updating, adjusting, and reoptimizing its internal filters constantly, saving me tons of time. And it's doing a better job than I could have. That's how software should be. But as long as no one expects their email software to do this, and everyone takes for granted that we all have to make filters and live with their limitations, or just file our own messages, no one's going to do what Agent did again.

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