Sparrow for iPhone has made Mail app obsolete

I was as excited as a child on Chistmas morning when the email came in this morning from Dominique Leca, the smart found Parisian developer of Sparrow for the Mac, to say that the iPhone version was live in the App Store.

It only took a couple of minutes before I’d installed it and another ten before Mail App for the iPhone was archived in my ‘undeletable Apple apps’ folder and Sparrow had taken its place in my dock.

I’ll start of right away by saying that Sparrow for iPhone only has one major drawback. It’s a major one, but it isn’t at all the Sparrow team’s fault. It doesn’t do push notifications. To find out why, I’ll simply quote their press release on the subject which couldn’t put things more clearly or concisely:

There are 2 ways to deliver notifications on an iOS application:

  • On our side: if Sparrow was to do Push today, we would have to store your credentials (login/password) on our servers to frequently poll your accounts, and send you notifications.

    This is a responsibility we’re not ready to take. As a startup focused on iOS/OS X development, we do not have the skills to secure your data on our servers and we do not want to put sensitive information at risk. That’s why Sparrow iPhone 1.0 doesn’t do push.

  • Directly from your mail provider: on Sparrow for Mac, your credentials are secure because we communicate directly with your mail provider via SSL.

The difference between the Mac and the iPhone is the Mac version is awake at all times. On the iPhone, iOS systematically suspends all apps activity after 10 minutes maximum making it impossible to send you notifications.

However, Apple provides an API that allows an app to be woken up in case of a network event meaning it is virtually connected at all times like Sparrow on the Mac. For example, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) apps take advantages of this specific API so you can receive calls even when the app isn’t opened.

This solution is the most secure because Sparrow iPhone will be directly communicating with your mail providers via secured protocols.

We submitted a first version of Sparrow iPhone using this API but it was rejected.

Leaving that aside until it’s solved (and in the mean time, all you need to do is leave your email settings untouched in Mail App (which you will have to do anyway, see below), and you will get notifications from Mail App, which you can then follow up in Sparrow. I did the same using the Tweetbot notifications for Twitter when Twittelator Neue did not have them yet. Bar this issue, my initial impression is that, as I expected, the app is going to be a sensational success and is massively better than Mail for the iPhone. You won’t, however, be able to do without Mail App completely. It remains the default email client on your phone, so it will always be opened (as is the desktop Mail App in similar situations) when you need to send email from an external app—e.g., when you want to send a photo from your photo stream. But that doesn't necessarily happen very often, and the iPhone Mail App is not as bloated as its desktop cousin.

It presents you with a simplified unified account with all your main folders. For Gmail users this means an immediate improvement over Mail App as you can quickly move between folders, especially the crucial All Mail folder in which all your archived email resides.

The Sparrow for iphone unified account
The Sparrow for iPhone unified account view. A series of sliders, à la Twitter, gives access to the rest of your folders. Its much more intuitive and fast than Mail App.

Archiving email once you’ve read it is a snap, as it is on the desktop version. My only (minor) gripe is that, on the iPhone, you don’t have the option to apply a label (I use ‘hold’ for anything I don’t want to or can’t deal with right away but needs to be followed up and thus stored separately from anything I don’t need to see again).

As in the desktop version, Sparrow provides a powerful and effective search function, something Apple for some reason has signally failed to come up with.

The Sparrow search window
Sparrow for the iPhone instantly finds anything you're looking for in your email account, something Mail App singularly fails to do. If it isn't stored on the phone, it offers the option to search for it on the server.

Those are my first impressions, but I haven’t ever felt so positive about an iPhone app: this comes as close to perfection as I believe was possible, especially in a field (email) which comes with quite a steep technical learning curve and in which the competition—especially Google with their laughably bad attempt at an iPhone Gmail client—have all failed. If you want to discover the app before purchasing it, there’s an excellent interactive demo on the Sparrow website.

Basically, Dominique and his colleagues have just made Mail for the iPhone obsolete.