Gmail is really cool

I have been using Gmail for a few months now and I think it is really cool. There was a lot of hype and hoopla about the 1G free space, outrage over targeted advertising, accusations about Google trying to ape Yahoo etc. In any case, there is no question that unlike the scores of free email services available today, Gmail is significantly different. It has really brought a fresh new thinking to the email application. As a regular user over the last few months, here are some of my thoughts on Gmail in general.
  • Discussions instead of email messages: All email exchanges on a certain subject are nicely grouped together and available as “discussions.” This makes it so much easier than having to review so many emails before recalling the thread of an email trail. If you find yourself constantly searching your email folders trying to figure out what the context of a certain set of email exchanges were, you will find this features immensely helpful.
  • Labels instead of folders: All email can be assigned one or more labels. This gets away from the conventional folder approach. You can now assign multiple labels to an email and find the same email under multiple labels. It is like being able to store the same email in multiple folders. If you find yourself in a dilemma very often about which folder a certain email has to belong to, then this is a feature you are going to love.
  • Search across email messages: Understandably, there is powerful search capability that comes with gmail. The gmail philosophy revolves around — why delete email when you can easily search and you have more space than you care for? While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “never delete email” philosophy, I think the ability to search your emails is extremely powerful. In fact, it will be really powerful if someday email search can happen magically across all email accounts of a user and not necessarily only in Gmail.
  • Apply Stars to messages: Messages can be assigned stars. This makes them easier to find during search. Another very useful feature which goes hand in hand with the search capability.
  • No Drafts: I didn’t find a way to save the draft of an email so I could come back to it later. This will be a very useful feature to have. But at this stage, I don’t think this feature is supported.
  • No Sorting: I didn’t find a way to sort the messages in my Inbox. For instance, there is no way to view your Inbox such that you see all the messages sorted according to the sender. This will be very useful, because the user can easily apply a common label and then archive all the messages from a particular user.
  • Beta: Gmail is still in beta. I have come across times when the service is unavailable. The occurrence of this has reduced dramatically over the last several weeks. On the one hand it is very annoying when this happens. On the other hand, I am happy to give the Google folks a break, after all its a free service! Google often has extended beta periods (sometimes seemingly indefinite). For instance, google news which has been around for several months now, is still in beta.
  • Accounts by invitation only: New accounts are assigned only when an existing gmail user invites other users. It is an interesting approach, but despite this restriction, I believe there are a large number of registrants. If you want an account, send me a note at pkurup@gmail.com A friend of mine invited me to open an account and I have been a user ever since.
  • Targeted Advertising: Despite all the privacy concerns raised, personally I think targeted advertising is fine. In fact, I think targeted ads are pretty useful. They appear on the right side of the page just like ads that appear when you run a search on Google. It is by no means intrusive. For instance, I have always been interested in DVDs of past cricket matches and haven’t found a good site that sells these. The targeted ads from Gmail pointed me to one.
  • Ease of Use: Gmail is clearly different from other email tools. So it does take some time to get accustomed to it. But my experience has been that Gmail grows on you to a point that you start longing for similar features in your everyday usage of email (for instance, at work).

I believe Gmail is a great first step towards more powerful email and personal knowledge/information management tools. The vast amount of email traffic in corporations and across the world has reached a point where inefficiencies are being introduced simply because of the sheer volume of email content generated. (For an interesting side note check out — Fridays: Casual days without e-mail) It is becoming imperative that smarter ways of dealing with email be developed and made available. The challenge is to develop new applications that blend well with the conventional email usage but at the same time is fundamentally more powerful. Gmail is clearly a good first step in this direction, in my opinion. The folks at Google are obviously very very smart and I expect more such cool stuff from them in the years ahead.

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