Opinion by Evan Schuman

Beware of iOS hiding your email messages

iOS 9 on iPhone 6

Opinion by Evan Schuman

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As enterprises rely ever more deeply on mobile devices for email, CIOs beware. A bug in iOS is periodically hiding email messages, in a way that makes the messages appear to have been deleted.

Here's how the bug makes its presence known. (And, yes, it’s an intermittent bug, which is tech support's favorite phrase.) Let's say you just downloaded 50 email messages. As you scan your mobile inbox, you notice four messages that you need to respond to right away. The others are junk that you want to delete now so that you can focus on the critical ones.

You then choose "Edit" and select everything other than the four important messages. You select "Trash" and, poof! Everything disappears. But wait, I specifically did not delete those four crucial messages. What happened?

When this delightful bug first hit me, I thought that I might have accidentally selected the "Delete All" option within the latest iOS email. When it happened again, though, I was ultra-careful and it did the exact same thing.

Why am I saying the critical messages (the ones you deliberately chose to not delete) are hidden and not deleted? That's where this mess gets interesting. Despite having an inbox with no messages in it, I backed out to the top-level email screen. Instead of it showing what I expected—zero unread messages in the inbox—it said that there four unread messages. I have run into this bug more than 50 times (have been working with Apple support on this since late last year) and it always present itself identically. The number of "unread messages" is always the number of messages I told it to not delete.

Here's more evidence for those messages being hidden and not deleted. When I went to the inbox and downloaded more messages, I used the inbox's search bar. When I searched for whatever words I remembered from the important messages' subject lines, the messages were always found. The search bar could see them, the top-level email app could see them, but the lowly end-user couldn't see them.

The bug has one last attribute. Several hours after it mischievously hides your critical messages, it kind of sort of returns. It displays this iOS dialogue box: "Unable to move messages. The messages could not be moved to the mailbox Trash" and then it restores all of your recently deleted messages, including the ones that you wanted to save and were hidden.

Of course, that happens hours after you needed the messages.

As I said, I have been working with various levels of Apple tech support on this for months. I even went to an Apple Store's genius bar so that they could backup the phone's full contents—yeah, I wasn't in love with that suggestion—and try and figure out where the bug was coming from.

They ultimately gave up, after making a bizarre suggestion to check with the company that registered the domain for me about 16 years ago. What that domain registrar had to do with an iOS issue is unclear, but that was the last suggestion I heard.

For the record, I also checked with various members of Apple media relations—voicemail, email messages and even a Twitter note—and never received a response. (Note to Apple: If you're going to ask media members to use the media relations main voicemail account, it would be a nice touch to actually respond to those messages. Just a thought.)

This bug materializes about one out of every six or seven times the opportunity presents itself. To do it, you first need a bunch of messages in your inbox and then you need to select all but a handful to delete. Have no idea why it happens only periodically, but that it does.

No surprise, but the issue isn't presenting when looking at the messages on the server, nor when accessing the mail from any other device, such as a Windows laptop. And given that the iPhone coughs the messages back up several hours later, it appears clear that it's an iOS issue.

It's worth noting that I discovered this glitch right after Apple introduced the long-delayed "Delete All" function for its email. My immediate suspicion was that the two were related.

This is a serious problem, as mobile devices are rapidly morphing into a power user's main email access unit, rather than the supplemental way smartphones were used a few years ago in enterprises. The more a user travels, the more mission-critical the device's ability to retrieve and present email becomes.

The workaround is unpleasant. When I see a crucial email on the phone, I choose to not delete any messages until I no longer need that message. But with my receiving hundreds of emails a day—many of them newsletters and Google news alerts—it's really hard to keep the inbox functional when it gets that crowded. When traveling, the inbox quickly becomes impractical.

Hence, Apple really needs to make this glitch go away. First, though, it needs to admit that it exists.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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