Google GMail has been the talk of the search advertising and privacy hounds for over two weeks now and before printing anymore stories on GMail controversies or potential privacy legislation, the Search Engine Journal asked on of our readers and early GMail testers, Bob Matsuoka, to review Google’s new GMail email and give us a new look at GMail from the eyes of someone who has actually used it. Thanks Bob!
Gmail – Preliminary Impressions, Bob Matsuoka
I’ve been using Google’s new Gmail service for the past few days as part of the second or third round of beta testers. Apparently Google is gradually opening up the pool of testers, and is allocating a fixed number of “invitations” each round (a smart way to heighten anticipation!). Here are my initial impressions.
I am a heavy email user, both personally and professionally. I’ve had experience with a number of email servers and clients, but now primarily use Mozilla Thunderbird as my workaday client, and store all of my personal and professional mail (over a gigabyte, going back to 1995) on an IMAP server hosted in our co-location facility. I also maintain Hotmail and Yahoo accounts.
My first thought, after initially signing on, was “is this all there is”? The interface is (in Google fashion) deceptively simple and minimalist. The Inbox lists incoming mail (or “conversations”, as Gmail
calls them — more on that in a bit). You can read messages, reply and or compose, “star” message, “label” messages, archive or delete, and report messages as spam (its been pre-filtering about 90% of my spam as well). The left hand navigation provides quick links to mail based on its “state” (inbox, starred, sent, all, spam, trash), or by its “label” (based on labels you define). Conversations can have many labels. You can also full-text search your mail, and create filters to automatically label and/or archive your mail based on from/to addresses and keywords.
In addition to standard features (spell-checking, personalization, attachments), there are some unexpected touches: ability to “pop off” composition window, keyboard shortcuts (type a key while browsing mail to trigger features), “personal level indicators” (indicate messages sent only to you or to you as opposed to a list), and “snippets” (displaying a section of text from the body of the message, a-la google searches), auto-typing of email addresses.
That’s pretty much it, but this simplicity is deceptive. While any one feature may not rise to the level of “revolutionary”, as a collection they are.
One of the first things you notice about Gmail is how fast it runs. One reason is the Google-standard html design. The inbox page (inner and outer frame) is less than *2k(!)* in size (by comparison, Hotmail’s inbox page is *20k*, and Yahoo’s is *10k* — neither are huge, but the differences are noticeable especially on page that is reloaded often). Another is the appliction execution speed. Most transactions happen in the blink of an eye. Logging in to Gmail seems to take no time at all, compared to the seconds it can take for HotMail or Yahoo (this will probably be affected by scaling of the service). Finally, Gmail’s designers have made good use of advanced HTML and the DOM. Many transactions do not require page reloads, and hilighting is dynamic and effective.
The net result is that to the degree that is possible using a web application, one does not feel burdened by interface and load issues.
Google calls messages “conversations”, and this is not just a conceit. A message thread is preserved as a unit in all of Gmail’s views. Each thread is by default collapsed to a single row, with on its subject and “snippet” viewable. In this mode it can be labelled or managed (deleted, archived, etc), and working with a collapsed conversation feels much like working with a single message. Clicking on the title of a collased conversation brings up a stacked message view, and clicking on the title of any messages expands it. Conversations can also be printed in expanded form (though this was one of the features that does not appear to be working (at least in Mozilla) yet.
Other mail programs have tried to execute this feature, and none have done it well yet. Gmail seems to have cracked this nut.
Conversations on their own simplify the management of email tremendously. Conversations in conjunction with virtual folders may convince me to move to Gmail entirely. In essense, labels are Gmail’s version of iTune’s playlists. While all mail is stored together, conversations can have one or more labels applied, and clicking on a label link brings up all conversations flagged with that label. Those of us who manage large volumes of archived mail know what a burdon it is to use folders to organize our mail. Most messages don’t neatly fit into a single category, and it is painstaking to move mail into and between folders.
With Gmail, you can either manually or automatically (with a filter) flag a conversation as a thread. At that point, all future mail in that conversation is automatically categorized. Once mail has been flagged, it can be easily recalled by clicking a lablel link, and new messages automaically bring the conversation back into the inbox. With a traiditional IMAP client, I spend a good portion of my mail time on task sorting through inbox messages, finding appropriate folders, and filing them. I don’t file outdoing messages (it is too time consuming), but often need to look them up as well. With Gmail, replies to conversations are already labelled, and my replies are included. Once reading a message, I simply need to select it and click “archive”. All archived conversations automatically return to my inbox if I receive a follow-up message.
There are lots of implications here. I suspect that Google has big plans for labels (“smart lablels”, anyone?), but I am estimating now that they, in conjunction with conversations, will reduce my mail
handling time by at least a third (not counting my quarterly clean-up routine).
Much has been written about privacy issues associated with Gmail. Some concerns are based on wrong information, such as the charge that Gmail will not let you delete email — you can. Other concerns seem overblown. Text ads do generally appear on the right (I haven’t spent enough time to get a sense of what drives the appearance ads, but I suspect that the appear anytime enough content is present to run the AdSense filter) in message detail views, but they are not intrusive. Ads do respond to the content in my conversation, but assuming Google is honest in representing the data it collects from this process (and I have not reason to not believe them), I have no qualms about using the service. “Let the consumers decide”, as I’ve heard more than one person say.
While the application appears functionally complete, there is plenty or room to grow. A simple WYSIWYG editor would be nice, or support for some of the text-based alternatives (or a choice?), as well as a more natural interface than a simple textarea; I tend to do must of my writing in email these days, and the current interface is not good for anything more than simple paragraphs (I composed this using Thunderbird). Google has just begun to explore labels. Many of the management interfaces are rudimentary. Spam control will no doubt increase in sophistication. Contact imports and exports.
Even given the early nature of the product, however, my experience with Gmail has been in many ways typical of my experience with all of Google’s products: *efficient*, *quick*, *accessible*, makes life *easier*. I suspect that many other people will feel the same experience