On email conversations


The email gods have spoken and Google has listened: Gmail now allows you to turn off conversation mode and display items in folders in the same way that clients have done since the year dot. The announcement was made on September 29 and the ability to turn off conversation views through Gmail settings has been gradually rolling out since. Needless to say, I’m firmly in the camp that conversation views are interesting but not for me, so I immediately turned them off, just like I have in Outlook and Outlook Web App.

Conversation views aren’t all bad and it all depends on your working habits whether or not you find them effective. I like to go through messages as they arrive and process them quickly (a zero latency inbox), deleting stuff that I don’t want to keep there and then rather than thinking about it. With this method of processing an inbox, I find that conversation views hide too much junk – like all the previous messages in a thread that contain duplicated text because each reply contains the text of all previous replies. I don’t need to keep this material to know what’s in the thread and although we live in the era of huge mailboxes (Gmail reports that I have used 17% of my 7505 MB) and on-demand search, I still don’t see the need to keep the redundant messages around. I guess I must be antediluvian in email terms, at least in the eyes of user interface designers!

It’s interesting that Google has found the need to disable conversations in Gmail soon after Microsoft has made a big effort to add conversation views as a feature of Exchange 2010 and clients such as Outlook 2010, Outlook Web App (OWA), and the latest mobile clients are able to group and display conversations together.  Some informal indications from Microsoft say that their research shows that 90% of OWA users like conversation views.

Conversation settings for Outlook 2010 (top) and OWA 2010 (bottom)

I admit that there are some good points about conversations, not least the ability to show the unique content for a specific message in the reading pane and to incorporate items from other folders (as you can see from the screen shot, this is a configurable option – if set, Outlook 2010 can even find items in a PST) to create a complete view of all of the discussion on a topic. One disappointing thing is that there’s no way for an administrator to control the OWA settings that govern conversations – these have to be set individually by each user, so if users want to turn off conversations for some reason, you have to tell them how to do it.

A number of message properties are used to build conversation views. Some of these are available for older messages sent prior to the deployment of Exchange 2010 and include:

  • InternetMessageId
  • In-Reply-To
  • References
  • Normalized Subject

Exchange 2010 also maintains a new set of conversation-specific properties to track the items in a conversation. These properties are as follows:

  • Conversation Topic
  • Conversation Index
  • Conversation Index Tracking
  • Conversation Identity

Clearly, some challenges exist in terms of forming conversations from older items but, on the whole, Exchange 2010 and the clients that support conversation views seem to do a pretty good job. Clients like Outlook 2003 and Outlook 2007 that know nothing about conversations blissfully ignore them.

Outlook 2010 also includes additional code to allow it to implement conversation views when connected to older Exchange servers and non-Exchange servers. This code works, but because it has to function without any help from the server, it is slower and less accurate in terms of linking items together in a conversation than when Exchange 2010 and Outlook 2010 work together. In addition, the client has to process all actions for a conversation. For example, you can decide to “ignore” a conversation, which means that Outlook will automatically move any messages in that conversation into the Deleted Items folder. If Outlook 2010 is connected to a legacy Exchange server, it has to process new items as they arrive to decide whether they belong to the conversation that you’ve just ignored. Outlook then has to suppress the items that it determines to be in the conversation.

Now that I’ve turned conversation view off for Gmail, maybe I’ll give it another go in Outlook and OWA to see whether my opinion was tainted by the influence of Gmail… After all, the implementation in Exchange 2010 seems to be a tad more sophisticated and thoughtful. This is no doubt due to the very real fact that Microsoft has to deal with a huge installed base that isn’t connected to central services in the cloud (yet); Exchange has to deal with many different clients and the many different work habits from millions of users working in deployments around the world, so their solution has to take different factors into account than those influencing a centralized service.

In any case, it’s good to have choice and it’s nice that both Google and Microsoft allow you to process your inbox in the way that you choose rather than the way that some software designer thinks it should happen.

– Tony

Read more about client-side issues influencing the deployment of Exchange 2010 SP1 in Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 Inside Out, also available at Amazon.co.uk, a topic that we’ll also be diving into in the Exchange 2010 Maestro Seminars.

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About Tony Redmond ("Thoughts of an Idle Mind")

Exchange MVP, author, and rugby referee
This entry was posted in Exchange, Exchange 2010, Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On email conversations

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention On email conversations | Thoughtsofanidlemind's Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Jim Wiltshire says:

    Great article. I have yet to find a use for the conversation view. I feel I am never being shown the full story. I don’t know ANYONE who uses it yet MS only let you change it in the OWA one folder at a time. I cannot believe they reckon 90% of users prefer it but they seem determined to force us down this route. Thankfully the normal Outlook is more customisable.

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