I’m playing around with Google’s Gmail thanks to an invitation from a random person who IMed me yesterday out of the blue before asking me why the hell I was on his buddy list. He had 6 invites or so and no one to send them to so he asked if I was interested. I said I didn’t really have a need for a Gmail account, but I was curious to check it out so he sent me one. Seems when Google first started testing this out the invitations suddenly become a hot commodity on eBay for awhile. Some invites managed to fetch upwards of $200 which is pretty good for an account that will be available for free at some point in the not too distant future. Google has been handing out the opportunity to invite even more people lately though, so the prices for Gmail invites has crashed and now you’re lucky to crack $20 on eBay if you’re trying to sell one off. I’m not all that worried about making a killing on eBay so this isn’t much of a problem for me.
I’ve never been a big fan of web based email. I’ve had one or two accounts here and there that I’ve used over the years as spam traps or throw-away addresses, but I haven’t ever used a web based email service as a primary account mainly due to the limited storage they have. With the amount of email I get every day from SEB alone I’d quickly fill up the free Hotmail accounts and the limitations of web based email are such that I’m not willing to pay extra for more space. None of the other web based email systems are all that much improved over Hotmail that I’ve felt the need to make any of them my primary address. Between my broadband provider and my websites I already have three POP email accounts which also have web based interfaces for me to use if I need to and that has covered most of my needs so far. Not to mention I can add up to 70 more email addresses based off of either of the two domain names I have registered if I really want to.
So what do I think of Gmail? It’s pretty cool. Aside from giving you a full gigabyte of storage (which still boggles the brain), it offers a couple of new ideas on presentation that are pretty nifty. The layout is pretty clean and very intuitive without a lot of the clutter that you see on sites like Hotmail. The basic functions for reading, writing, sending, replying and forwarding email are all present on the screen at any given point in time and are placed in logical locations on the screen. For example, the links to Reply or Forward an email are located at the bottom of the currently displayed message in anticipation that you will be reading to the end of the email before clicking the links. However, when you click either of these two links instead of opening a whole new screen with the original message in it Gmail drops down a window directly underneath the message you’re replying to.
Probably the coolest new idea in Gmail is the idea of email as a “conversation.” Traditionally most email clients display your email in a chronological order as it arrives. If you get into a lengthy set of replies with someone those various messages will be interspersed with all the other email you receive. As long as no one deletes the text from a previous message in the reply chain you can reference earlier messages by scrolling down the screen, but if some of that quoted text is removed the only way to reference earlier emails is to re-sort the display of your inbox by sender or subject to dig back through the previous messages you received. If what you want to reference is something you wrote then you have to go to the Sent Items folder for that. Gmail groups replies into conversations and when you read an email that is part of a reply chain all of the previous messages in the conversation, both to you and from you, are listed in the display for easy reference. You can see how it does this in the image to the right here (click for a bigger pic). The display looks like a stack of papers with a small edge of previous “sheets” sticking out at the top with the name and subject of previous messages printed on it and the most recent message on the “top” sheet. As you can see I’ve been carrying on a conversation with myself and if I forget what I may have said in a previous message I just click the edge of the sheet I want to see and Gmail expands the screen to display that sheet above the current message. That is pretty friggin’ cool!
Another nifty feature is the ability to “Label” your emails. Labels work like Folders in other clients except that you can assign more than one label to an email so if you want that email about your health benefits to be both in your “Work” folder and your “Insurance” folder you just assign both labels and you’ll be able to locate it in either spot. You can also tag messages with a “star” to give it a special status. What that status means is up to you. It could mean to follow-up or make it a to-do or just you really liked that conversation so you gave it a gold star. There’s a few other things that Gmail does a little differently that all add up to a surprisingly useful package despite the rather simple interface it presents you with. All in all it may actually change my mind about using a web based email for my primary account.
Oh, and a word on the AdSense ads that Gmail includes in your email: So far all I’ve seen of this has been a couple of ads alongside the display of my inbox and/or messages and it’s the same plain-text and unobtrusive ads that appear along side their search listings on Google. Given the rather minimalist messages I’ve used in my test messages so far more often than not there haven’t been any ads displayed at all. Compared to what is plastered all over the competition’s interfaces what Gmail is doing is a welcomed change and I really don’t understand what all the uproar over them is all about.
I have a feeling that Gmail is going to be very popular when it’s finally opened up to the public and will probably inspire a lot of imitation by the competition. Already the fact that they over a gigabyte of storage has other folks scrambling to match or better their storage offerings, but as impressive as that is that probably won’t be the big reason people make the switch. Even without that extra storage, Gmail is offering an innovative new way to think about and organize your email and that’s what will probably be the biggest draw of all. I’ll probably recommend to my family members who are currently using Hotmail to make the switch once it’s available just for the ease of use factor alone. If you want to drop me a note at my Gmail address you can do so by sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org.