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Let me first say that I have little doubt that I will be switching all my mail activity to Gmail. This is email as it should be - Google has nailed it, plain and simple. Forget Outlook, Mac's Mail.app, whatever: Gmail is how email should be done.
I do have one major concern, and that relates to the advertising. No, I'm not one of those who is upset about the ads; my worry is that I haven't seen very many of them. Realistically, providing a Gigabyte of disk space and a few billion cpu cycles daily doesn't cost Google very much, so Gmail ads wouldn't have to tempt me all that often to be profitable, but the ads will have to grab me once in a while because somebody has to pay for this. I would have thought that my email, being both voluminous and heavily loaded with tech words and phrases, would have caused Gmail to present me with quite a few ads, but it hasn't. I get 50 or more legitimate emails daily, and four times that number in spam. Many of the non-spam emails attract no Gmail ads at all. The spam, which I'm unlikely to even look it, of course does attract ads.
For those real emails that do trigger an ad, I confess that most of the time I didn't notice. Frankly, I'm concentrating on reading and responding to my email. It was only when I deliberately went back to review mail with the specific intent of seeing what kind of ads were generated that I noticed them. Those ads are appropriate and well targeted, so I might well click into one now and then, but if I don't see them in normal use because my attention is on my actual email, what good are they going to do?
Well, that's not my problem. Gmail is more than good enough that I'd pay for it. Hear that, Google? If the ads don't generate enough, don't can the project: it's worth paying for.
The Gmail way
Why is this so good? The problem all heavy email users have is organizing and searching our mail. It isn't the instantaneous reading and sending that is our major concern; it's finding records of conversations. In traditional email applications, we do that by dumping messages in folders, and tagging messages with labels or color codes. Gmail has a better way.
When you are looking at a Gmail message, you have only a very few actions available. You can tag the message as Spam, which immediately moves it to a Spam folder. You can move it to Trash, or you can Archive it. Finally, you can tag it with a label (or labels) or "star it" (described later). Other than printing, or marking it read or unread, that's about it. Nothing complicated, and it might seem too simple, but the simplicity is the secret here: the power comes from the deliberately limited interface.
My Email mess
Like most busy folks, my email has been a mess. I have stuff I need to take care of ASAP, messages about shipments I need to watch for, on-going technical conversations with clients and vendors, and so on. I've tried to organize it all with folders and labels and colors and it Just Does Not Work. I end up with an Inbox that is too big, hundreds of folders and sub folders, and when I need to find something, it takes forever and often is a frustrating game of hide and seek.
My first day with Gmail was a refreshing relief. As always, I had several on-going back and forth conversations with various people on various subjects. Gmail understands conversations, so when a new message about "xyz" arrives from Joe, I see all the other messages related to this that Joe and I have sent back and forth. That's automatic, with no effort on my part. If I choose, I can tag messages with labels. These are custom defined; I started with "To do" and "Watch for". Labels effectively become folders: your message or conversation is now available under each label you tagged it with. As you can tag with multiple labels, mail messages can "appear" in more than one place.
Apple has threaded messages in Mail.app that are very similar to Google "conversations". But those are slow, a bit clumsy, and in my opinion, not as well implemented as they are in Gmail.
There's one special, predefined label, the "star". This is just a yellow star you can click on or off quickly. Starred messages/conversations appear under the "Starred" folder. I quickly realized that I didn't need my "To-do" label; starring is quicker and easier, and as I attend to the task, un-starring is again quicker than removing a label.
Actually, I'm not sure I'm going to need many labels at all because of Gmail's Google-like searching capability. All I do with most messages is hit Archive, confident that the message will remain threaded into its proper conversation and that I can easily bring it up at any time with a few key words. I don't have to "organize"; Gmail's context searching does it for me. I suppose I might find use for a few labels here and there, but I suspect I may need none at all. So my actions become even more simple: report it as spam, or reply and "star" it if appropriate, then hit Archive. All done. Very nice feeling, that.
The only options in composing email (other than the obvious cc and bcc) are to attach a file and check spelling. That annoys my wife, who uses Word as her email editor and likes to bold face, change fonts,indent paragraphs, etc. I try to explain to her that she shouldn't be doing any of this at all, but it falls on very stubborn ears. Her attitude is that most of the world will see her email just as she sees it, so my protests about purity and the evils of HTML mail are unimportant.
Unfortunately, many other folks probably share that feeling, so Gmail will likely have to address it sooner or later.
Google support says they will be adding:
- Automatic forwarding of your email to another account
- Plain HTML version of Gmail
- Import/export Contacts
Update: Gmail has added html formatting, pop mail capability and more.
The 1 GB Storage
Much has been made of the generous storage allowance Gmail provides. Yes, compared to the miserly amounts some other folks have offered, 1 GB is big news. But really: it isn't all that much. I'll probably fill that in three years, maybe less. Yes, that's a lot, and I could certainly stretch that out by getting rid of older stuff that I'm unlikely to need, but I won't want to. My hope and expectation is that Google will sell additional storage to big Gmail users. I never know what conversational snippet I may need to reference in the future, so I want to save it all.
Spam and Viri
I don't know what Google is using for Spam filtering. It looks like it could be SpamAssassin or some other Bayesian filter. Like most nowadays, it catches a lot, but also lets quite a few get in (Gmail does not load images, so you won't be accidentally notifying spammers that you saw their mail). The "Report Spam" button which moves them to the Spam folder seems to imply that Gmail will be "learning" your Spam tolerance, but I don't know how much (if at all) Gmail will take advantage of its ability to see what other folks mark as spam. I would think that learning from thousands of individuals could really improve the filtering, but we'll see. One improvement that could be made here is automatic deletion of Spam after some period of days. Presently you have to visit the Spam folder to delete these completely. That's really important for those of us who are big spam magnets; I get several megabytes of spam daily. If I didn't get rid of it, I could probably fill up my 1 GB Gmail storage in a very few months or even weeks. When the Trash folder is empty, Gmail says " No conversations in the trash. Who needs to delete when you have 1000 MB of storage?! ", but if you are getting lots of spam daily, you do need to delete.
Gmail suppoprt says spam is automatically deleted after 30 days. I'm going to let mine sit and see what it builds up to.
There's no mention of virus scanning anywhere. I would think that is a definite feature Gmail should offer (at extra cost, of course). Double scanning, once by your ISP and again with a different anti-virus vendor at your PC, increases the detection rate and protects you more (see http://aplawrence.com/Unixart/dhantivirus.html).
Google does mention viri in their Help section, where they say that they don't let Gmail accept executable files:
Gmail does not accept these types of files, even if they are sent in a zipped (.zip, .tar, .tgz, .taz, .z, .gz) format. If someone tries to send this type of message to your Gmail account, the message will be bounced back to the sender.
That's not necessarily a good thing: from time to time, some of us do need to send executables through mail.
That brings up another point: there's no reason to give up your existing email addresses in most cases: just have them redirected to your Gmail address. If Gmail does start offering virus scanning, you might be able to take this to three levels: once at your first ISP, once by Gmail, and finally by your local PC for any attachment you actually open.
Gmail is still in Beta as this review is being written, but it is spreading fast, because existing Gmail users get to invite a few other folks in (sorry, yes, I have used up my invitations).
Update: Google has begun to loosen up. I have a few invitations available for readers of this site.
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