In the digital world, the folder metaphor has perpetuated the single dimensional limitations of the physical world : each message is present in one and only one folder. The problem of adding more dimensions to the classification has been solved ages ago – whether you want to go hardcore with a full thesaurus or just use your little folksonomy the required technical foundation is the same : tags, labels – or whatever you want to call your multiple index keys.

Noticing how Google has been successful with email tagging, I started exploring free implementation four years ago, aiming to complement my folder hierarchy with tags. But inertia affects all, and I actually never went beyond happy experimentation. As Zoli Erdos puts it in his eloquent description of Google’s 2009 breakthrough in ending the tags vs. folders war :

Those who “just can’t live without folders”, mostly legacy users of Yahoo Mail, Hotmail and mostly Outlook. They are used to folders and won’t learn new concepts, don’t want to change, but are happy spending their life “organizing stuff” and even feel productive doing so.

Ouch – that hits a little too close to home. And even if I had gone forward with tags, that would have been pussyfooting : as Google illustrates, the distinction between tags and folders is a technical one – from a user point of view it should be abstracted. Of course the abstraction is somewhat leaky if you consider what folders mean for local storage, but in the clouds you can get away with that.

For cranky folder-addicted users like myself, born to the Internet with early versions of Eudora, later sucking at the  Microsoft tit and nowadays a major fan Mozilla Thunderbird, there is definitely a user interface habit involved – and one that is hard to break after all those years. It is not about the graphics – I use Mutt regularly; it is about the warm fuzzy feeling of believing that the folder is a direct and unabstracted representation of something tangible on a file system.

Software objects are all abstractions anyway but, with time, the familiar abstraction becomes something that feels tangible. This is why, while I acknowledge the need to get the tagging goodness, I still have desire toward the good old folder look and feel with features such as drag-n-drop and hierarchies. Google seems to know that audience : all those features are now part of Gmail. Now tell the difference between folders and labels !

To make a smooth transition, I want Mozilla Thunderbird to display tags as folders. It looks like it is possible using Gmail with Claws through IMAP. I have yet to learn if I can do that on my own systems using Courier or Dovecot.