GMail: The Holy Grail of Email?

by PocketGoddess on May 25, 2004

Gmail LogoI’ve been lucky enough to participate in the private beta of GMail, Google’s new webmail service. I got the invitation almost two weeks ago, signed up immediately, and was instantly blown away. Read on to find out why GMail just might be the next big thing that could change the way people think about email forever.
You may be thinking to yourself that “She must have gone off the deep end! It’s just another webmail service, right? Wrong! GMail is indeed web-based email, but it’s a great deal more than that. It has some of the obvious features like easy access from any Internet-connected computer and integrated spam filtering, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. One of the more obvious differences is the amount of storage space: one gigabyte, or 1000MB. That’s almost too impossibly large to comprehend, especially when you consider the fact that the average email message is less than 5K. What that means in practical terms is that you don’t have to throw anything away unless you really want to, and you don’t have to waste your time trying to “manage” your email any longer. I’m on a staggering number of mailing lists, some of which are good for a one time read, and others of which I may want to archive for future reference. In the past I’ve spent a lot of time cutting and pasting reference material into other applications for long-term storage. With GMail, I don’t have to do that anymore– unless I want something on my Palm OS device, in which case it’s still a simple matter to paste whatever I need into a memo on the Palm Desktop.
Another radical change comes in the way that GMail organizes your messages. Insead of folders, you use labels. You can create your own labels of course, and you can also set up mail filters to automatically apply labels to incoming mail messages based on the sender, message subject, or particular words found in the body of the message. ShadowPlan users will already be familiar with this concept, because it works exactly like “tags” in that popular Palm OS planning/outlining application, but for everyone else I’ll throw in a little explanation. In some ways labels are similar to folders, in that messages with a certain label are grouped together and can be accessed with a single click on the left side of the GMail browser window. But the similarity ends there, because each message can have more than one label at a time, and in the end, both “Inbox” and “Trash” are merely labels as well. You can add and remove labels at will, according to your organizational systen or mood.
Since I follow the “Getting Things Done methodology of David Allen, I have “Waiting For” and “Someday/Maybe” labels, along with groupings for the various mailing lists I’m part of, receipts for online purchases, etc. Once you’ve read a message you can archive it, which takes it out of your Inbox and into the “All Mail” section. Don’t worry about losing that email though, since you have the full Google search capabilities narrowed down to your personal messages. Searching is truly lightning fast and worked flawlessly in all of my tests. As long as you know a single word in the message, you’ll be able to find it almost immediately. Since you have virtually unlimited storage capacity, the label system and Google search ensure that you’ll never spend more than two seconds at the very most when you’re trying to find important information.
Those two features are great, but that’s not even the half of it. Another important innovation that GMail introduces is the idea of email organized into conversations, rather than unrelated individual messages. I don’t know exactly how GMail works its magic, but the result is very similar to the “threading” options I’ve seen in traditional email clients and in the YahooGroups web interface. Messages regarding a particular topic are stored together, and when each new mesage comes in it is automatically filed with the others. When you’re looking at your Inbox, a listing of the people involved in a particular conversation is on the left, along with a number in parentheses that lets you know how many messages there are on the topic. Click on the message subject to open the conversation, and you’ll see all of the messages stacked on top of one another, like index cards, with the name of each author at the top so you can quickly jump from one message to another. This makes things well-organized and of course makes them easier to find. If you find that you want to archive or delete a conversation, you can do that with one click, and all of the messages are filed appropriately. You can also discard individual messages if you like, by clicking the “more options” button.
The next major feature is ease of navigation provided by keyboard shortcuts. This may not sound like much, but once you’ve turned on this option you can navigate very quickly by pressing a single letter key: “j” for the next older message, “k” for the next newest, “O” for open, “r” for reply and “c” for compose. No more alt+this or shift+that. It takes just two letters to go back to your Inbox from any point, for example, and there are a few more carefully thought out combinations available. Other handy tidbits include the ability to “star” messages for whatever reason you like– perhaps important information, a question needing followup, etc. It takes a single click to turn that bright yellow star on or off. Another nice feature is the fact that the display of HTML messages is off by default. That means you don’t have to worry about seeing anything you don’t want to (pornographic spam, for example) or confirming your email address to spammers. If you do want to see the images (love all those book covers in the weekly Palm Digital Media newsletter, and in my saved search results that eBay sends me when new items are found) it takes just one click, and it’s fast. Yahoo hides that option at the bottom of the message, and for some reason it takes simply forever to load images compared with GMail. One last thing, GMail has a superb spell-checker built in, and it works like a dream.
Of course all of these innovations and feature come with a price, albeit a rather small one: ads. Don’t worry, I’m not talking about those “loud” ads you’ll find on Yahoo, Mail.com, Hotmail, and other web services that blink incessantly, telling you that won $1,000 or promising a fabulous trip to the Bahamas for only $149. What you see are simply those now-familiar Ads by Google– text-based, highly relevant, and dare I say it… understated. I was truly surprised by just how little I noticed the ads unless I wanted to, and I often found myself clicking on them if I was interested in learning more about a new product about which I’d just received notice. I’ve heard the fears about privacy, but Google has assured everyone that our email is *not* read by humans, but machines that are clever enough to put in the relevant ads. That’s fine by me, after all I don’t really consider email to be a truly “private” affair. It can easily be intercepted at any point along the way, after all. I’m not arguing that I want people to read my mail– nothing could be further from the point I’m trying to make here; rather that I; rather that I don’t think I have too much to worry about with GMail.
I’ve already converted most of my email accounts over to GMail and am extremely pleased. Whether or not it’s actually the Holy Grail of email is a question that each individual will have to answer for themselves. I’d have to say that it comes pretty close for me, except for one glaring lack: it is not possible to access the GMail beta from any mobile web browser I’ve tried. In some ways that’s not a true problem in the sense that no one is going to use this service for mission-critical email, and it is pretty easy to find a desktop computer these days. Of course for this email addict, that’s also a good thing. My nights and weekends have been more relaxed lately, and anyone who needs to send my an urgent message already has my “real” email address, which offers POP3 access. GMail also does not offer virus scanning for email attachments, but hopefully it will in the future. That’s a nice convenience to have, especially when it’s all too easy to download an open an attachment without running in through your own scanner. (If you don’t have one that automatically updates itself, get one now!) GMail has definitely revolutionized how I handle mailing lists, newsletters and the like, and I couldn’t be happier with its speed, versatility, and sheer power.
GMail is currently in closed beta testing, and there’s no word yet on exactly when it will be available to the general public. I’m sure that the news will be everywhere within about twenty seconds of the official release, and I’ll be sure to post a note here at PocketGoddess.com. For now, you’ll just have to wait, and I know that’s hard to do. Especially after a quick look at GMailSwap– seems that some poor desperate souls will do almost anything to get GMail now. I’ve seen Hawaiian vacations, cash, iPods, and other goodies change hands. If you really can’t wait, come up with something creative and maybe your dream of having a GMail account will come true sooner, rather than later.

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