Sparrow Was Born From Letters.App, And Why Tweet-Like Email Is Just The Beginning [Exclusive Q&A]

Sparrow Was Born From Letters.App, And Why Tweet-Like Email Is Just The Beginning [Exclusive Q&A]

Last week, one of the most interesting Mac programs to come out in years hit the App Store in Sparrow for Mac, an elegant and attractive e-mail client that looks and acts a lot like Twitter.

I loved it, comparing it to more full-featured clients like Postbox 2 by saying Sparrow was “the equivalent of skipping stones, not piloting a submarine.”

I decided to reach out to Sparrow for Mac team member Dom Leca and ask him a few questions about the origins, inspiration and future of the e-mail program that treats your Gmail as if it were Twitter.

Cult of Mac: Sparrow wears its inspiration from Tweetie on its sleeve. What made you think that Tweetie’s approach to Twitter could work with email?

>Dom Leca: We contacted Loren Brichter from Twitter (Tweetie at that time) to ask him if he was comfortable with us using his sidebar design. We thought it was both elegant and a faster way to switch between mail accounts. The feedback for users was great and it felt smarter than the usual list of accounts prevalent in most mail applications. We saw it as a way around the most painful part of using Gmail on the web: the process of switching between accounts and logging in and out.

The sidebar design is the main thing we took from Tweetie. The rest of the UI is much inspired by Mail on iPad, me.com,¬†Mail on iPhone and a lot of nice UIs we’ve seen across various native and web apps.

Overall, Sparrow aims to be something in between an email notifier like Gmail Notifier and a full application. Notifiers do their job, but they don’t help you improve your mail flow. Full fledge mail applications do everything you want but they take too much screen estate and you end up with windows everywhere. Sparrow aims at having all the options and features of a full fledge mail client in a small item on your desktop.

CoM: Does Sparrow draw its inspiration from Tweetie on a merely aesthetic level, or is it deeper? Do you think treating email like Twitter is actually beneficial to productivity?

D.L.: With Sparrow, your mail flows almost in real time, but even so: e-mail isn’t like Twitter, or at least not yet. It is still and will remain a more formal way of communicating.

Mail is closer to chat than Twitter. We expect that Sparrow’s UI will evolve a lot in that direction, especially in threaded view as we find new and simpler ways to display threads. We don’t expect it will go as far as SMS on the iPhone, but we hope to integrate some of that philosophy into Sparrow over time.

This is the long term orientation of Sparrow. We want to avoid turning email into something as informal chat, while at the same time allowing people to handle their email quick if they want to. We’re searching for the ‘in between’.

CoM:: On your site, you say that Sparrow is the result of ten years of work that began with Etpan. Can you give us an idea of how Etpan led to Sparrow?

D.L.: Etpan is a side project initiated by Hoa Dinh Vie ten years ago. He ended up creating an open source mail engine almost entirely by himself. That project was sufficiently advanced that he joined an iOS development company I co-founded in 2008 as CTO.

Two years later, we ended up leaving that company, and dusted off Etpan after deciding that we were not satisfied with what the Mac ecosystem offered in terms of Mail experience. Hoa tried to join John Gruber’s Letters.app initiative, but that project dissolved.

That’s how Etpan turned into Hermod (a proprietary mail engine layer). From Hermod, Sparrow was born. We launched Beta 1 in October 2010. After that, Jean Marc-Denis joined the team as a designer, and because of the traction that first beta had, allowing us to get some venture capital invested in our company within days, the project really got off the ground very quickly.

CoM: Sparrow for Mac seems so infused with the DNA of Gmail that it’s hard to imagine it working for other IMAP services, like Yahoo Mail. Still, you promise that version 1.1 will have full IMAP support. How much of Sparrow’s Gmail functionality will be available to other IMAP users?¬†

D.L: We’re convinced that threads makes a lot of sense for users in terms of efficiency and clarity in their mailbox. However, for non tech-saavy users, the Gmai web interface can seem complicated.

When Sparrow integrates general IMAP, all mail from all providers will be displayed in threaded views. Apple has largely participated in making the threaded view more common and acceptable to users, thanks to the interface of the iPhone and iPad.

The ‘Favorite’ category will also stay visible in all accounts plugged into Sparrow when it adds support for other IMAP services.

CoM: Any intention of supporting more of Gmail’s functionality in Sparrow? For example, contacts management, creation of filters, or Gmail’s priority inbox?

D.L.: We’ve put aside a lot of that stuff for the moment as we focus on implementing general IMAP support, which requires a lot of testing and other attention. Still, eventually, Priority Inbox will be there, as well as many additional Gmail features, along with other general enhancements.

CoM: What’s in the cards after Sparrow version 1.1? What sort of functionality would you like to add?

D.L.: Sparrow is meant to designed and improve the mail experience, and we’re already thinking of ways to enhance that. Ideas we have include integrating shortlings and cloud services. We’d also like to expand Sparrow’s compatibility with other Mac applications, integrate Facebook’s new messaging system and take advantage of some of OS X Lion’s new capabilities.

Overall, though, Sparrow has some rough edges that need to be polished and corrected, including the way the app behaves, refinements needed for the user interace, and small bugs to be squashed. We’re going to focus on getting that right before we greatly expand our features.

Sparrow for Mac is now available on the Mac App Store for an introductory price of just $9.99. The official website can be found here.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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