On Rue Reaumur in Paris, France, 27 year old Dominique Leca leads a small team of engineers and one designer on a quest to build a better mail app for iPhone. A few mail clients exist (like eMailGanizer, which is ugly enough to dissuade you from using it, or Gmail, which is essentially a web app), but so far there’s been nothing to pull users away from the iPhone’s Mail app. And this was precisely the Sparrow team’s goal: make a better mail app they’d want to use on a daily basis.
Leca's language is user interface design, and he communicates through software that seems inherently more comprehensible than what you've used before. Sparrow has caught on with more than 100,000 daily users because it's simple, inspired, and most of all, practical. Sparrow for iPhone is no different, an inspired piece of software that’s near perfect.
This is the story of Sparrow.
Getting off the ground
"It's tough to be an entrepreneur in France," Leca said to me in an ironically thick French accent. "To tell you the truth, I didn't know what I wanted to do so I went to business school." Only when prodded further does he reveal that he attended HEC, one of the top business schools in France.
Leca sounds bored as he relives the dark ages before he let his creativity guide him. "I had just done everything I could to get internships in advertising, real estate, and tax law. Maybe being a lawyer could be fun?" Leca said with an audible grin, humoring himself.
After he finished school, Leca found himself building apps for big companies — an unfulfilling mission for an imaginative mind. He eventually decided to quit his job, but not without leaving a very prominent mark on the people he worked with. Just two months after Leca left, Dinh Viêt Hoà, one of the firm's most talented engineers, came to him with an idea.
"You've fallen in love with interface design," Hoà said. "Want to try to build something with my mail engine?"
Leca had heard about Hoà’s pet project before, an open sourced mail engine ten years in the making — a "fresh take" compared to Apple and Microsoft's mail engines since it was built by one guy and thus code consistent. Hoà had built it during free time he had while he worked at Apple and Amazon.
Leca wanted in.
"It's tough to be an entrepreneur in France."
Building Sparrow for Mac
Hoà and Leca set out to build something they'd use every day, a desktop email client that works seamlessly with Gmail and its variety of nuances like labels, Stars, and "Send And Archive" buttons. First, the app needed a name.
A sparrow is not a particularly colorful or fascinating bird — especially when pit against ultra-pheasants like the Mac Mail app’s Eagle or Mozilla’s Thunderbird — and this is what attracted Leca and Hoà to it symbolically. "We wanted to convey a sense of speed, and the fact that the app is small and doesn’t take up much screen real estate." But, they still wanted to stick with the bird theme you can find in many communication applications like Twitter and the aforementioned mail apps.
The first step in building Sparrow for Mac was simple, Leca told me. "We'd look at the current Gmail interface and at mail clients like Postbox to see what they were doing right in letting you access Gmail. Our guiding principal was to have the app be the opposite of a full screen app. You should be able to check your mail with a Pages document open."
The way Leca uses his Mac reflects his view of how applications should look. "I never use the email Preview Pane in Sparrow, or the navigational sidebar," he told told me. Instead he leaves Sparrow in its natural state: a simple list of emails that takes up a small fraction of his screen. In this way, he can work on other projects while seeing his email inbox, because to him, the email inbox is almost exactly like a to do list. "Our main goal was using our new app to reach Inbox Zero every day. Your work is done when your inbox is empty."
The primary visual inspiration for Sparrow was the visionary work of Loren Brichter, the user interface genius who designed Tweetie for iPhone and Twitter for Mac. Leca loves Brichter’s trademark left-side navigational sidebars, meticulously designed glowing icons, and "widget-like" aspects of Twitter for Mac that enable you to focus on many applications at once.
Freelance designer Jean-Marc Denis, another student of the Brichter school, loved the first iteration of Sparrow so much that he contacted Leca and offered to re-do the app’s icons and sidebar for free. "Sparrow is great software but it looks like shit," he told Leca. Denis joined the team full time as designer, and Sparrow was born. The team has even acquired Brichter as a quiet mentor who provides advice and wisdom every week or so.
Future-proofing a mail client
"The problem with Sparrow is that I'm happy with what we've done."
Leca and company seem very much on the cusp of something much bigger than a beautifully designed mail application.
It starts with third party app integration. Sparrow is more colorful and personal because it pulls in contact pictures from Facebook and displays them alongside emails. Sparrow rethought sending files by allowing you to instantly upload files to CloudApp or Dropbox and attach them to a message in one step. Sparrow even built in a character counter for the benefit of Shortmail users, yet no feature seems to unbalance the simplicity of Sparrow.
"Even with cool third party app integrations such as these, we’ve only just hit the tip of the iceberg," Leca said. This kind of flexibility enables Sparrow to transcend conventional notions of what email can do. "Apple doesn't like to be dependent on third party applications. Apple's Mail app didn't work well with Gmail for a long time because it wasn't relying on Google's label APIs," and the users are the ones who suffer.
We inhabit a sweet spot because mail isn't as correlated with change in Silicon Valley nearly as much as other apps. Some companies need to react on the day something happens. With mail, we are protected from all the small changes happening in the valley.
"The problem with Sparrow is that I'm happy with what we've done," Leca told me. The next step for Sparrow is optimization and seeing what aspects of the app people actually use — seeing where people click and how the UI can be even further optimized.
A couple new ideas the Sparrow team has thrown around the office revolve around making email more public, and perhaps more social in a couple unique ways. The first idea is attaching a URL to each email chain and letting users share them or save them for later. The second idea is letting users post email conversations to the web, a la Shortmail. "The idea is underrated," Leca said, "but it would be too early if it came out now... Products are born from usage patterns and not from something that imposes a paradigm upon you. Imposing is weird."
Doing what Google couldn't
"Google is thinking long term and they know that in 7-10 years, people won't be able to tell the difference between web apps and native apps," Leca told me. "This is why nobody really worked on the application for iOS." And apparently, great Gmail integration on the desktop isn't too difficult to implement, it's just that nobody has given it a real shot since the web app is already pretty decent. "We're just using Gmail as a pipe," Leca told me. "We didn't have any problems with Gmail APIs or the labels API. It's pretty simple to implement, really."
What isn't so simple is building an iPhone app from scratch, an app that lives on a screen a fraction of the size Leca's accustomed to working with. Fortunately, there's Path 2.0, Facebook, the original Tweetie, and the iPhone's Mail app to draw on for reference on what already works. Leca likes Mail's inbox screen, but wanted to remove the bottom navigation bar so users would have more room to browse messages. He appreciates Tweetie's swipe-able context menus, so he adapted them to work with mail. Leca also likes Path’s paned-navigation, background textures, and overall design aesthetic. He doesn’t even share most of his Path updates with friends — he instead uses the app to beautifully catalog his daily life. Fortunately for Leca, if he ever heads off in the wrong direction, he’ll hear about it. Path co-founder Dave Morin is an advisor to the team.
Since Hoà was busy on Sparrow for Mac, Sparrow for iPhone needed a developer. Leca turned to 27 year old Jean-Baptiste Begue, who became "the real guy behind Sparrow for iPhone." Begue is lead developer and has built the app himself from the ground up since July 2011 having only three years of iOS and Mac development experience. "He has a strong sense of animation, having been a 3D OpenGL engineer in the beginning, which makes him very proficient," Leca mused proudly. "He's fast."
Begue is an all-star, but still had issues creating a mail composer for Sparrow for iPhone. "Rich text and HTML editing is a mess," Leca relayed to me. "We finished the composer back in November, but then decided we were bored with the three inputs (To, From, and Subject)," especially since they take up so much space onscreen. The team decided to make the recipient field a separate screen you can get out of the way before you even start tapping out an email. "We even considered small chat bubbles instead of email chains," Leca said, "but that was a mess, too."
"We're just using Gmail as a pipe."
Apple pushes back
So where does Sparrow go from here without push?
Just weeks before Sparrow for iPhone was set to debut, Apple gave the company some bad news: Sparrow had been caught using the "VoIP Privilege," the company’s only hope of using Apple’s servers to push emails to users. As you might expect, the VoIP privilege is only meant for VoIP apps like Skype, which need to constantly listen for calls and chats. Hoà says that this missing privilege is a large part of the reason why there are no third party mail clients on iOS that push email messages.
Sparrow could use its own servers to push emails, but then the company would be responsible for keeping track of every user’s email credentials. This isn't a risk Leca is willing to take, citing the gravity of a security breach since emails are so personal. Sparrow would be a target, he says, and his expertise is email, not security.
Another relevant question is how apps like Tweetbot, for example, do push for Direct Messages. "There's less sensitive information in Twitter than in emails. Emails hold your life" Hoà told me. Paul Haddad, the engineer behind Tweetbot, corroborated Sparrow's problem to some extent. "[An email client] is doable but you have security issues with some server that's run by a third party having access to all your email." Haddad added that "Bottom line, there's no way any app is going to get anything clever past Apple to run more than 10 minutes." Haddad once faced a similar problem and too faced rejection from Apple.
The Gmail app, on the other hand, has no issue because you're dealing with Google's app, Google's email service, and Google's servers doing the pushing and holding your credentials. When you own the entire experience, security isn't nearly as much of a concern.
So where does Sparrow go from here without push, a feature many (if not all) users will be quite disappointed and confused about?
Leca posted a petition page on Sparrow for iPhone's website that asks Apple to revisit its rules about push notification privileges. Sparrow is just as battery-efficient as Skype or Apple’s Mail app, Leca says, so why should Apple care what the app is pushing? Leca does not have high hopes for his petition, but is going to try anyway.
Leca refused to provide any details about what platforms Sparrow might head to next, but I got the impression it wasn't because he was trying to keep any secrets. "We still don't know what project to do next," he said. Perhaps Android would be a good move. The push issues the company has been having would be gone on Google's mobile operating system, Hoà told me. The iPad is also a logical choice for Sparrow, but Leca says that he would never just port the iPhone app to iPad, despite how simple it would be technically.
Flying with clipped wings
As the Sparrow team has proven with frequent app updates over the past year, Sparrow will adapt to the constantly fluctuating tech landscape through an innate sense of what's right, and maybe most importantly, what looks good. Sparrow for iPhone is $2.99 for no particular reason, Leca said. "It was just a feeling, like $9.99 for Sparrow on Mac. There was no market research involved."
The team does, however, keep constant track of what its users want from Sparrow. designer Jean-Marc Denis, for example, posted possible Sparrow for iPhone icons on Dribbble with caption: "We are still not satisfied with the various icon iterations we made. We would like to know which one you'd like the most."
Many fans posted their favorite icons, while some even posted icons they had created for Sparrow in response to Denis' post. Had one been remarkable enough, there's no doubt that the Sparrow team would've asked politely to use it.
And this is where Sparrow resides: at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. Sparrow has inspired many software artists but also takes inspiration from others (and as we've seen, is eager to embed great apps into its own heart). The view is a holistic one, and while Sparrow for iPhone is alive (yet crippled), it's proof that when handled carefully and thoughtfully, third party developers can beat Apple and Google at their own game.