Google’s Gmail – An in-depth look

communication tools, google, technology

I’ve had the pleasure of extensively beta testing Gmail for a few days, and I’m happy to offer my thoughts about the service here. First, though, I’d like to get a few disclaimers out of the way:

  1. I don’t work for Google. I’m not a Google employee and I do not speak for Google or the Gmail team, yadda yadda…
  2. I can’t get you a Gmail account. I can’t even get accounts for my bestest friends. If you’d like to try out Gmail, I encourage you to sign the notification list here.
  3. Gmail is in BETA (not yet a finalized product). Beta beta beta beta! Things will be fixed, improved, changed, etc. Therefore, I will try to resist the impule to nitpick about specific features that don’t work perfectly because — let’s face it — this is a BETA version, and what I’d write today would likely be fixed before long.

With that said… let’s get on with the show 😀

OVERALL / THE BOTTOM LINE

For those too lazy or busy to read through my long note, here’s the quick summary for you:

Gmail is generally a delight to use. While it is not yet fit to be a substitute for client-based e-mail systems (Eudora, Outlook, etc.), nor does it yet have all the features of competing Webmail services, Gmail is blindingly fast, its ads are unobtrusive (often even informative and useful), and its label paradigm is promising. And of course, as one would expect, the search features are unparalled. If you’re not keen on seeing text ads or you prefer a more drag-and-drop GUI environment AND you don’t mind paying $30/year for a fabulous competing Webmail service, I urge you to check out OddPost. Yes, the time has clearly come to ditch Hotmail and Yahoo!.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Hold the presses! Google has finally unveiled some of the best Gmail screenshots on its own :-).

NOTE: I’ve since added in a few screen shots (each <100K) which may be of interest to those of you reading along here... - Gmail searchGmail filter, part 1 of 2Gmail filter, part 2 of 2 Also, you may wish to check out the screenshots posted by Kevin Fox (one of the UI designers of Gmail) and the review and screenshots posted by Sean Parker.

PRIVACY

Here are the facts:

  • No new ‘privacy invasion’: Google parses, stores, and backs up any mail sent to its addresses. So does Hotmail, Earthlink, Yahoo, AOL, Comcast, and every single other ISP / corporation in the world. The only two differences in this context are the amount of space Google offers (encouraging people to save their mails could lead to easier subpoenas, but you can’t blame Google for greedy divorce lawyers) and the fact that Google displays often-relevant ads next to the e-mails instead of the flashing and obnoxious “You’re winner number 481023!!!!!!!!” ad banners you see in other Webmail services.
  • Ads are limited, unobtrusive: There are no ads placed in outgoing e-mails… not even any tagline. There are no ads placed inside incoming e-mails, either, as you’ve likely noticed from various screenshots of Gmail around the Web. Just occasional ads and/or Related Sites listed on the righthand side of the Gmail screen. It should be noted, too, that — unlike with many other sites — these ads and site listings are shown after the mail content itself is drawn, so there’s no waiting for your actual mail text to load. Additionally, with Gmail there are no popups, no popunders, no graphical banners, no extra e-mails sent to you begging to have you upgrade to “Google Premium” and so on.
  • There’s no profiling maintained: We could go back and forth with arguments about “But Ashcroft could MAKE them profile!” or “Google is lying!” but I’m not even going to get into these hypotheticals. The bottom line is that Google has explicitly noted that all targeting info gleaned from the mail you receive is discarded immediately after an ad is selected and shown, end of story. If you’re still not comfortable with that, perhaps Gmail isn’t for you, and that’s okay! :-).

OPENING AN ACCOUNT

I was amazed at the simplicity of this process. No request for demographics, no long “opt-in mailing list opportunities” to wade through. The only required info: First and last name, and a preferred Gmail username. One thing of note: All usernames must be a minimum of 6 characters, which is a downer for the many of us who have short first names. Strangely, that’s actually irrelevant in a way, because Google apparently blocked off all common names (even of >6 characters) early on, so all the Jim Smiths and Jane Does and so on were out of luck from the get go. I’m guessing they did this to minimize the impact of dictionary and general spam attacks, but maybe they were just trying to be oddly egalitarian :D.

READING E-MAIL

At first, I was a bit wary about Gmail’s “Conversation” (semi-threaded) view of e-mails, but I’ve grown to really like this. Keep in mind that this isn’t true multi-level threading, and IMHO, that’s a good thing. Instead of helter-skelter indenting here and there, conversations (composed of e-mails with the same message ID and subject line) are stacked on top of each other in a single layer like cards.

Gmail handles this part of the interface beautifully!
When there are a few e-mails, Gmail shows the TO and FROM names and a snippet from the e-mail. When there are many e-mails in a conversation, Gmail just visually shows the stacked cards; one click then shows the TO/FROM + snippet, and another click instantly expands the e-mail to show the full text, minus quoted text from the earlier replies. In any situation, one can expand all the e-mails with a single click or open/close any individual e-mail, though as of yet, there are puzzlingly no ways to collapse an entire conversation. This is one of those aspects of Gmail you just have to experience to appreciate. Even when you’ve archived a conversation, when someone later replies to the same thread, you get the full ‘stack of cards’ again… allowing you to mentally get back into the earlier context in a heartbeat. The elegance of Gmail is evident even before one begins reading mail. The Inbox, which — as you’d expect — includes a list of the mails waiting for you, intelligently expands or contracts the length of the mail snippet it shows you, depending upon your screen resolution, browser size, and font size. In other words, everything fits perfectly, no matter how your computer is setup. Okay, taking a step back, that’s not completely true; I’ll take a (very) brief detour to acknowledge that Gmail’s not compatible with all browsers, since not all support javascript and DHTML to the level required at this point in the beta test. The Gmail team has noted that they are actively working to improve compatibility, and I trust ’em. For the 94%+ of the Internet-enabled public that uses IE, there’ll be no problems. Gmail also offers some other subtle features, like using a more muted font color (gray’ish) for signatures, along with a javascript-based hide/show option for quoted text. This latter part is especially appreciated, given how many clueless noobs have not yet grasped the concept of trimming replies. Perhaps (he says, optimistically), the eventual widespread use of Gmail and its default conversation view will encourage people to start removing the > > > > >’d text of the earliest 47 replies in a thread. One can only hope! 🙂 Lastly, Google has followed the lead of Microsoft/Outlook (!) and has disabled by default the showing of referenced graphics in all incoming HTML e-mails. This is to stymie the practice of spammers who often place “web bugs” (invisible graphics) in their mails to track who opens them, likely sending those poor saps an even greater amount of mail or selling their data on an “active e-mailer — send them more spam!” premium mailing list :|. So, on the obvious upside, Gmail is taking a successful and laudable swipe against spammers. Unfortunately, there is no white-listing of this default blocking; users must click on the “show graphics” link every time they get an HTML e-mail from even an opt-in source (e.g., a daily tech newsletter you’ve asked for).

COMPOSING AND SENDING E-MAIL

It’s ridiculously easy to start an e-mail. You can hit ‘R’ to reply, for instance, or even just click in the little box below an e-mail you’re reading, and it’ll instantly expand… complete with quoted text all ready for you. Additionally, Gmail’s conversation-view is maintained, letting you scroll up and see the full history of the mail or mails you’re replying to. There’s also a built-in spellchecker that’s pretty straightforward to use, though I don’t believe it yet offers a way to add words to a ‘personal dictionary.’ Addressing mail is quite a pleasure. Gmail remembers the names and addresses of people you’ve previously written to, and then pops up — in real time, as you type each letter! — names of matching recipients, ordered by the frequency with which you’ve written them in the past. So if you often write Belinda Jones, as soon as you hit ‘B’ then ‘E’, it’ll show (and have already highlighted in anticipation) “Belinda Jones ” Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to send HTML e-mail, and any received HTML mails that are replied to or forwarded will be converted into plain text. I am fairly certain that this will change before Gmail’s public release. Also, there is not yet a way to save a draft of an e-mail being written, though — once again — I expect that this will be added, since it seems to me to be a rather basic feature.

ATTACHMENTS

KaZaA fans, wipe that excited smile off your face. Gmail limits both incoming and outgoing mails to 10 megs in size (including attachments), so don’t plan on using your gig allotment to store ‘n’ forward bootlegged movies. Sorry 😉 For the rest of us, Google’s attachment offerings are serviceable if not particularly inspired. jpegs, unlike with other services, aren’t viewed inline, and perhaps that’s good (especially for dialup folks). EXE files are not allowed (due to virus concerns), and that’s also smart, IMHO. You can attach and remove files before sending, but you can’t remove attachments from files you’ve received. That’s a bit of a bummer when your overeager friends send you an e-mails you’d like to keep, if it weren’t for the dumb (and uncompressed) 8 meg photos or music files attached. By the way, currently Gmail is a bit coy about letting you know of attachment sizes, or even the general size of your individual or grouped mails. There’s no column or — as far as I can tell — any indication at all of how big your mail is. Gmail is clearly serious (IMHO, too serious) about dumbing down this aspect of the service to encourage people to archive rather than delete their mail.

MANAGING E-MAIL

Conversations It takes a bit getting used to the fact that — while it’s usually possible to perform actions on individual e-mails — Google generally acts upon all your e-mail in sets of conversations, as noted earlier. Ads targeting, archiving, and labeling… it’s all done to conversations. At first, this bothered me; what if I want to label just one e-mail in a long conversation? However, in practice, I’ve noticed that I’ve grown to like the less granular approach to handling my incoming mail, and I haven’t seemed to miss the ability to star or label or archive one specific piece of a conversation.

Labeling Moving away from the folder paradigm is actually both a bold and smart move for Google. Given the longevity of the folder model in pretty much every other existing Webmail service and software application, I’m guessing that this may be initially a bit of a jarring change in the way people approach and think about their mail. However, I am confident that close to 100% of the people who try Gmail will learn to appreciate using labels over folders. Why? The key difference is that it’s now possible to file your mail conversations under more than one heading. When you get a detailed diary-type note from your Aunt about her travels in Costa Rica, you can now file this under “Family” and “Travel,” which in the grand scheme of e-mail filing is a lot more valuable than you might think at first glance. However, while labels do offer greater filing options, I can imagine that the current Gmail labeling system may become rather unwieldly over time. Labels are now listed alphabetically and cannot be re-ordered or stacked hierarchically, and as the number of labels one uses increases, I fear that it’ll become harder both to mark and to browse mails. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re a music reviewer, and initially you create labels for each artist or group you review. After a while, though, your label list starts to get a bit unwieldly, and it’d be nice to group labels into, well, hierarchical groups (by geography, genre, etc.) In other words, labels currently allow for nice grouping, but — as of yet — not good grouping of groups, if that makes any sense 🙂

Filtering At this time, Gmail filtering seems rather rough around the edges… it supports filtering only of incoming mail… no editing of filters, no filtering of mail you’ve already received, and no filtering on outgoing e-mail. I expect this to be rapidly improved as the beta progresses, however. And in general, Gmail filtering is already extremely fast and also reasonably powerful. One can use OR, along with parenthetical groupings, and also many keywords (subject:, from:, etc.). Currently, Gmail users are limited to a maximum of 20 filters, but I hope and expect this limit to be lifted in the future.

Anti-spam issues It’s unclear to me how Gmail’s spam filter works. Or rather, unfortunately in my case, doesn’t work. I’m currently having to deal with an enormous number of false positives and and false negatives. This would bother me less if I had an inkling of what mechanism Gmail uses to filter spam (Bayesian? Fingerprinting of mails marked as spam by others? Content analysis?), which would allow me to understand how this filtering might improve dramatically over time. Luckily, though, it’s a pretty simple and quick matter to mark mail as spam and not-spam, with the former even being available via a shortcut key (the exclamation point, which does seem quite fitting :D). One additional irritation, though, is that when you mark mail as spam, Google puts it into your spam bin, when it should instead place it in the trash bin. After all, unlike mail that’s been marked as spam by Gmail, this mail we’ve affirmatively noted is spam; there’s no need for us to look at it a second time. Personally, I’m hoping that Gmail ends up using Bayesian filtering. Using Outlook plus the free Bayesian spam filter called POPfile, I find that my mail is handled with greater than 99% accuracy… pretty hard to beat!

THE ADS

While I’m almost afraid to admit this, I rarely even notice the ads on the righthand side of the page. They’re that unobtrusive. But when I do notice them, I find the targeting to be, ahem, still in need of quite a bit of fine tuning. And here’s what confuses me: Given that the Gmail engineers are (understandably) disallowed from viewing folks’ private e-mail, how will they go about improving ad targeting? I wish there was an option (during the beta period, and with full disclosure!) to allow Gmail engineers to personally read and analyze mail we mark as having “poor targeting” to enable them to quickly improve their ad targeting. I realize they may already be sharing personal e-mail internally for this purpose already, but with their numbers, this just isn’t sufficient. With that said, I do have to note that in many cases, the ad targeting has been both appropriate AND useful. Not only am I often shown ads that make perfect (related) sense, but I also appreciate the frequency with which Google intelligently shows spot-on “related pages.” For instance, someone was talking about a particular software program in an mailing list note I received, and voila, Gmail had a link to the company that makes that product under “Related Pages.” The unobtrusiveness of the ads, while at initial consideration may seem to be a downside for advertisers, is likely not a problem in this context. This is because AdWords advertisers are not penalized for low click-thrus on content sites and in Gmail, and they only pay when people click on their ads. If the click-thru rate via Gmail is low — perhaps with people only noticing very highly relevant ads — then Google will lose out on some revenue in the short term, but advertisers won’t be harmed and may even be helped. In the long term, I think Gmail ads will be well-liked by most consumers and advertisers alike. As for inappropriate or insensitive targeting… I haven’t noticed this to a be a problem yet. I sent a couple of test mails to my Gmail account, focusing linguistically on the theme of death and dying, and Gmail “outsmarted” me each time. That is to say, when I sent e-mails about “dying to see funny jokes… man, that last one had me out of breath, on the floor, and about ready to die!…” Gmail smartly showed ads for Joke stuff. When I wrote a note (thankfully untrue!) of equal length about a relative dying (“Isn’t it funny how the doctors didn’t notice anything strange about Aunt Martha before she died?… You have to laugh at the incompetence of medical staff nowadays…”), Gmail showed no ads whatsoever. I’m sure there will be instances in which Gmail’s targeting results in ironic or even unpleasant juxtapositions, but it seems to me that this should be rare, and in the end probably no more likely than the scenario of a recently-widowed woman seeing an untargeted but equally jarring ad for “Single? Looking to date?” ad in her Yahoo mail.


OVERALL USER INTERFACE, operations plus look and feeel
Though, as I’ve hammered home, this is indeed still a beta version, I must admit to strongly mixed feelings about the way in which Gmail has been structured and the ways in which its designers expect users to interact with the system.

Thumbs up:

  • Lots of useful keyboard shortcuts… “g i” lets you Go to your Inbox, “y” enables you to instantly archive a conversation and so on.
  • The interface is subtlely colorful without being garish.
  • Frames are used in a such a way as to dramatically minimize screen-redraw time. Unlike with most other Webmail systems, actions (mail deletions, labeling, etc.) are performed with amazing speed, letting the user continue working without waiting a while for the actions to take effect.
  • Navigation is simple, straightforward, and fast! Unlike with any other Webmail service I’ve seen, I can open up an e-mail (or e-mail conversation) and, hitting the back button, be back at the listing of my emails in less than half a second. Though Gmail lets one open up emails in a separate window, there’s now really no need to do so.
  • As part of all the stuff noted above, javascript is used brilliantly and effectively. Though there are legitimate concerns about accessibility, I am confident that Google will indeed work hard to make Gmail usable by the handicapped.

Thumbs down:

  • Some of the most common tasks are not supported by keyboard shortcuts or even streamlined mousing. Labeling and unlabeling conversations, for instance, is often quite tedious. There’s no way (I can tell, at least) to select multiple e-mails without mousing it; it’d be nice to be able to quickly use the arrow keys to either select or at least navigate through an e-mail list, for instance.
  • Form elements are often used in ways that are not standard, nor necessarily intuitive. For instance, on every screen that includes a list of your mail, there is a submit-style button with a pulldown menu right next to it. Convention would suggest that the expected behavior would involve selecting an option via the pulldown menu, then clicking on the submit-style button. But this is not the case. Instead, each performs a separate function. The submit-style button performs one-click actions that are context-dependent (e.g., “archive” in the incoming mail screen), and the pulldown menu lets one perform different actions, also depending on the context. Additionally, there are no ways to access most of the pulldown menu options via a shortcut key, and — worse yet — the options aren’t in an ordered or numbered list which’d allow for quick one-button access after selecting the pulldown menu.
  • Though keyboard shortcuts are great, I wish Gmail followed the OddPost model of right-click (mouse) functionality as well… being able to quickly select a large group of emails and then right-click on “mark as read” for instance. After all, since Gmail is more of an app than a Web page (or set of Web pages), it’d make perfect sense for it to disable the traditional Web-page-related right-click options (“save shortcut” for instance).
  • Sometimes, it seems like the Gmail engineer geeks are, well, thinking like geeks and not like Joe and Jane consumer. While the Gmail folks have added in lots of wonderful little touches that make the service more convenient and easy to use, they’ve also crufted up the service in a few maddening ways… like having keyboard shortcuts be unnecessarily geek-style cryptic, or requiring “OR” to be capitalized in filter strings.

OTHER THOUGHTS

One gig is pretty impressive, both marketing-speak-wise and otherwise. But I am unconvinced that this is really enough to enable people to store ‘all their mail’ for many years. Google’s own writing/marketing/PR people seem to be admittedly schizophrenic on this issue, sometimes claiming that 1 gig will be all people ever need, other times saying it’ll last people for “years,” and in one of their help files, bragging that it’ll be enough for five years of storage for the average user. I know I’m likely on the un-average side of the curve, but — even without heavy mailing list traffic and with hardly any attachments — I’m slated to fill up my 1 gig allotment in 400-500 days — well under two years. What then? Perhaps Google will be offering two gigs of storage by that time, but I must admit a little bit of concern in this area. Overall, though, my biggest concern about Gmail has been Google’s surprising bungling of Gmail PR and general communications. There’s no reason why 90+% of articles about Gmail should be so negative, so speculative, so uninformed! Did Google reach out proactively to journalists on April 2nd to walk them through the coolness that is Gmail? Did Google proactively contact privacy advocates and privacy-oriented organizations to candidly address their concerns before they started screaming publicly? Apparently not. I actually could go on about the these issues (privacy concerns and Google’s handling of them), but I think that’s enough fodder for a separate blog entry, which I’ll link to here if I choose to write it in the future. Anyway, I hope this has been informative, and please be assured that I’ll read (and, in batches) respond to all comments posted below. Thanks for stopping by BLADAM, and please feel free to check out other entries here, perhaps even browsing by categories listed on the righthand side :-).

 * * *

And in the next episode(s) of BLADAM reviews Gmail

Others who have provided worthwhile bloggy reads about Gmail:

23 comments… add one
  • Jay Han Apr 14, 2004

    Thanks for the review.

    About selecting multiple mails: select the first mail, press shift and select the last one.

  • Philipp Lenssen Apr 16, 2004

    Nice review! I quoted you here
    http://tinyurl.com/2gyca

    [URL trimmed down so it fit on my sidebar 😀 – Adam]

  • Tomas Apr 16, 2004

    Great in-depth review, very nice!

  • bantam Apr 21, 2004

    You’ve said what I was thinking in a much better and more eloquent way.

  • Barry O'Neil Apr 22, 2004

    So you have a 3-step sign up: first name, last name, and Gmail username.

    I’ve been involved with beta testing before, and I always had to sign some sort of ‘end user license agreement’ which threatened to destroy my being and my family members if I used my experience for “competetive intelligence gathering.” 

    It’s hard to believe Google had nothing at all for you to sign.  Can this be a new step towards friendlier beta testing?  Do tell…

  • Adam Apr 22, 2004

    A sincere thanks for the kudos, folks! 

    And Barry, like with pretty much any service or software package online, I did have to read and agree to Terms of Service (no spamming, no suing for incidental damages, yadda yadda), but in this particular case, we 2nd-round testers did *NOT* have to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA).

    Apparently, though, Google was a bit sensitive about info being disclosed in the earlier stages.  When I initially got my invitation, my invitee was not aware that I had a blog, and upon learning of this she noted that—at that stage—it was her understanding that Google was asking employees to not invite prominent bloggers (not to say, btw, that I see myself as a blogger of that degree :D).  However, a few days into testing and itching to blog, I queried the Gmail team directly, and they affably wrote back, yeah, go ahead at this point, no prob.  So here I am 😀

  • Scott Apr 22, 2004

    Great review! This should be published and shown to the world so that the accusations are countered by fact.

    Scott

  • TDavid Apr 27, 2004

    Solid, thorough review, I have added to my new gmailtalk.blogspot.com review list.

  • hani May 2, 2004

    Waiting For Goole to be my search eng. my email my front page

  • Taco John May 7, 2004

    Great review.  As an Opera M2 users for my school e-mail account, I love the labels, since they are very comparable to M2’s accesspoints.

  • Bill G May 8, 2004

    Loved your review, superb. It should be widely distributed to quiet the critics 😀

    Want to know if your name is stil available ok GMail? click below:

    http://www.fscom.net/gmail

  • Trent Thomson May 20, 2004

    How do you get an invite to try gmail anyway? I’m really interested, but I hope Google don’t intend on allowing use by invite only for 2 years (that’s how long they beta test everything else! lol)

  • Adam May 20, 2004

    It’s unlikely to be years, I think.  Most estimates I’ve heard suggest another 2-4 months.

  • diabetes May 22, 2004

    From my friends who got gmail, I was told that it worked great for them.  It’ll be a hugh blow for hotmail and yahoo mail.

    However, I am sure many people will be targeting to gmail’s security loopholes… When everyone focuses on you, you’d better be careful. 

    By the way, do you know when Gmail will be released to the public?

  • ehsan May 23, 2004

    i want to have a gmail adress but i can’t get it?
    please help me
    tanx

  • Fred May 25, 2004

    Is anyone else seeing an outage right now?

    Since yesterday every time I log in I get a completely blank page, either in Mozilla or IE.

  • Adam May 25, 2004

    hmm… not down for me.  Though I’ve heard of others having downtime in the past even when most folks could get online.

  • James Mar 11, 2008

    You can use hint which you had filled up at registration time.
    and if it’s is been hacked than i don’t think that it will help you in terms of re activation of account.

  • Diabetes Blog Mar 29, 2008

    i’m so used to hotmail and yahoo mail that i could not stick with gmail for anymore than 2 days. opened an account to check it out but didn’t like the interface

  • Rick Apr 4, 2008

    Ever since switching over to Gmail, I’ve never looked back. Hands down the best free email provider available today IMO.

  • Sam Jan 8, 2009

    I really gmail search function and its bigger attachment size. But i have its slow loading. But still its so good that i can not stop using it

  • Andy Jul 3, 2009

    I don’t know why, I have to provide a phone number (cell phone) to get my new gmail activated. The activation code is sent trough SMS.

  • Suzann Sep 4, 2009

    This week, about millions of users and businesses were hit by Gmail outage on Sep 2, 2009. Great webmail, right? LoL

What do you think?