Doing "Notmuch" to fix Email

by Ostatic Staff - Nov. 18, 2009

When two of the folks get involved in writing an email system out of frustration, it's safe to say that email clients need a kick in the pants. Carl Worth, with some help from Keith Packard, have announced Notmuch, a search-based "email system" for handling large volumes of mail.

Packard says "it’s a sad commentary on the Linux desktop that the most important feature for many people using Linux has no credible GUI application." One might quibble with Packard for singling out Linux. GUI mail clients across all platforms have really failed to evolve as well as, say, the Web browser. While the current crop of GUI clients work fine for processing smaller amounts of email, people who process hundreds of messages daily start seeing pain points in the GUI clients pretty quickly.

The answer? According to Worth and Packard, it's "Notmuch:"

Notmuch really isn’t much of an email program; it doesn’t talk to mail servers to receive or send mail, it doesn’t even really know what Maildir should look like. All it does is construct a database for all of your mail messages and allow you to search and show email messages.

The Notmuch interface is implemented within Emacs. It doesn't send or receive email, and the search "heavy lifting" is done by Xapian. There's not much to Notmuch, except a library interface for searching through a bucket load of email.

The developers don't claim that Notmuch is ready for prime-time just yet. Packard says that it's pretty rough today but "it's plenty fast," and that the things to fix are "pretty simple at this point." If you'd like to play with it today, you can find the code in a Git repository. The Notmuch site doesn't provide any packaged downloads at this point, so it may be a while before most users get their hands on Notmuch.

Whether notmuch itself really catches on or not may not be the point. One hopes that the projects producing GUI email clients will take note of the general level of frustration with email. While I don't see Packard's rather hefty volumes of email on a daily basis, I get enough to see the inadaquacy of the various clients that are available. The Mozilla Messaging folks are doing great work with Thunderbird, but even that client leaves a fair amount to be desired.

What the Notmuch developers have done, in addition to creating at least one library inteface that might be useful, is to highlight just how weak our email solutions are right now. Often in the FOSS community, that's all it takes to spur other projects into working on a reasonable fix. Let's hope "Notmuch" is all it takes.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a longtime FOSS advocate, and currently works for Novell as the community manager for openSUSE. Prior to joining Novell, Brockmeier worked as a technology journalist covering the open source beat for a number of publications, including Linux Magazine, Linux Weekly News,,, IBM developerWorks, and many others.