Modern Technology

Friday, February 18, 2005

Gmail: Seamless Beauty

This week I was finally able to get around to opening a (not so) coveted Gmail beta account. My first impression was that it seemed a bit odd. Some of the shifts in thinking were so foreign compared to traditional email that it took a while for me to even begin seriously considering using this new system.

Gmail does take a while to get used to. This is really because of what I already mentioned about the shifts in thinking. Some examples of this are e-mail messages are replaced with e-mail conversations, folders are replaced with labels, mouse clicking is replaced with mouse press to give it a smoother feel, and a few other things which don't really fit into the classical classic paradigm of traditional e-mail (or websites!). Because of this anyone who doesn't give Gmail a thorough try will make an incomplete judgment.

Going out on a philosophical limb I have to suggest that possible Gmail users not focus on what Gmail does have, but rather what other e-mail services do not have. Call it a pessimistic viewpoint if you want, but it will actually help you see the entire point behind Gmail and why it's not just another online e-mail service. Actually, the thing that kept me interested in Gmail at first was my noticing that Gmail allowed a message to have more than one label ('folder"), a feature I had desired for a long time.

With regard to a quantifiable feature set, Gmail has the following in its inventory:

Spell Check
In Gmail when you hit spell check in a composition you are taken into a spell-check mode (much like Yahoo!). Here you click on an underlined word and it shows a mini-menu of possible correct spellings.

The distinguishing feature of Gmail's spell-check system, however, is what I mentioned in passing: the words are underlined. In other systems the words are replaced with abrupt combo boxes which just don't seem to belong there. So, while the spell-check is not nearly as seamless as it could be, it is the more seamless of the internet e-mail options.

This is where the seamless nature of Gmail becomes a bit clearer. When you receive an e-mail you don't need to hit reply and wait for a new screen, but rather there is a box at the bottom you just start typing in. Gmail automatically created a new message reply and there is no abrupt change from the click to the typing.

I found this very helpful due to the many times I want to reply right away, because I'm in the topical mood and my thoughts are right there, but after hitting reply and waiting a while (say, I had a slow connection that day) I forget what I was going to say or lose my focus.

One other thing about replying that is seamless is that when you reply you are on the same screen as the original message. Many, many times while writing a response, I want to reread a part of the original message. I could reference the quoted reply gibberish, but it's just that...gibberish. In Gmail you simply scroll up a bit to find what you are looking for.

In classic e-mail you would put an e-mail in a folder. Since the message is physically going to that folder, it can only be in one at a time. In Gmail, however, it works a little differently. The concept of folders is replaced with labels. Since they are not physical placeholders, this allows any given message to have more than one label at a time.

The amazing thing is that they still act like folders in navigation. The label list looks just like any other folder list with the only difference being that an e-mail can be in more than one folder at a time. One example of a use of this would be an e-mail from a specific person talking about a specific topic. So if all e-mails from Jane go to the Jane "folder" and all e-mails about finances go to the Finance "folder. What happens when Jane forwards you your shared phone bill she received by accident? What folder does it go in? In's in both. You will see a new message in both "folders," but it's the same message.

Filters in Gmail are much like filters in any other e-mail system, except for the fact that you can run slightly more complex filters (though not quite as complex as I would like). For example you could use "* OR msreview@*) to forward all Microsoft messages to a "folder" (well , give it the Microsoft label).

At first the search didn't even pretend to work, but after a few days and a few rather sizable imports from my Yahoo! Plus account the searches were seriously living up to the Google legacy.

For a list of search commands and examples, check this out:

One feature I found absolutely phenomenal is not actually a Gmail feature, but rather an easy-to-use Windows XP add-on. You can assign Gmail a windows path! You simply drag and drop attachments into the Gmail folder (it's basically an imaginary hard drive without a drive letter). A nice by-product of this is that you never have to attach files again. You simply drop files in the folder and you receive the message in your Gmail. Then just forward it to those to whom you want to send the attachment. You can download this add on at

As the above list clearly demonstrates, Gmail has some features that e-mail has really needed for years, but this is not the only nice thing about Gmail. The other important item to notice is its seamless usability. Gmail works with you, not against you.

Sadly there are a few things missing from Gmail and lists of these missing features are posted all over Google Groups by those practically demanding their implementation. Here is a short list of things I would like to see in Gmail.

  • a "folder" to view unlabeled messages

  • the ability to disable the conversation view

  • HTML or RTF Formatting (yep, that's can't color your e-mail yet!)

  • sorting (there is absolutely no sorting except for the default by date sort)

  • a delete button (right now you have to select it from a menu)

  • ability to disable the "automatically add people I sent mail to my contacts list" setting

  • ability to POP mail into your Gmail account from an external account

  • an option to display the message size

One last feature that would be nice is the ability to import mail from Yahoo and Hotmail accounts. There are all sorts of programs to help you do this, but not all of them work that well. In fact, I had to write my own import application! If Google is planning on making Yahoo and Hotmail users a target market in the future, then they will definitely need this feature. To its credit, Gmail does offer a contacts list import. With Yahoo! this is a breeze since they have an export function, however with Hotmail it requires a bit of work on your part.

I can't recommend that people with a solid base in Yahoo! Plus or Hotmail Plus switch, because of possibly features they have which are absent from Gmail (notably, external POP mail). For those in that category, a change might be needless. Personally, for my to switch to anything in life the destination must not only provided the same features, but also be at least a 200% improvement. That's just my percentage; you may have your own.

On the other hand I do recommend it for anyone who...
  • ... has the mind of a designer or put another way, is left-brained, mentally ambidextrous, or just love seamless beauty (OSX users notably)

  • ... is looking for a FREE e-mail home who has a zillion email accts around

  • ... wants (or needs!) to be able to have messages in more than one folder

  • ... likes e-mail threads kept close together

What I think it really comes down to is finding where you fall in the spectrum ranging from being set in a permanent e-mail home to desiring cutting-edge features and design. Personally, I'm not sure where I fall into that continuum.

Given seamless beauty and strong feature set I can see Gmail being a major player in the online e-mail world. However, unless Google adds some of the most commonly required features, they will have a hard time luring in the masses. It will be interesting to see how Google moves forward with the beta program and how they affect the current online e-mailing community.