Gmail is a new Webmail offering from Google. It is currently in a beta test phase and open to users by invitation only. Like Joel from Canada, I recently accepted an invitation for a Gmail account (derek.hatchard “at” gmail.com) because it is new and cool. Ever since the April 1 announcement I've been trying to get one and then got lucky last week when a friend from IBM had extra invitations to send.
I tend not to enjoy using Webmail. I've had firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com for quite a while but they are overgrown with spam weeds. Posting the addresses here will probably just exasperate the problem! :) Actually, both accounts have probably been deactivated due to neglect. But I wanted a Gmail account because I think it offers us a first glance at the future of email...
Webmail has two major problems: the limited user interface of HTML browsers and the lack of offline support. Webmail sites in general try to mimic desktop mail clients with folders for organizing mail. But a Web-based interface is weak for interactively moving data around (for example, moving messages from folder to folder). For many people, the constraining user interface makes the Webmail experience tolerable at best. And keeping things well organized with that user interface? Forget about it.
Many of us are just plain bad at organizing our email because a) mail clients make it hard and b) it requires discipline. Many Webmail accounts are for personal use. They should not be so painful to use.
With Gmail, you are not expected to organize your mail into folders or build complex rules - things that are not usually easy in a HTML browser interface. Instead of making the user responsible for grouping messages, Gmail presents a message to you with its thread so you can peruse it, which makes it easy to review the history of a message. Gmail can even hide quoted text in the thread and show it on demand.
With Gmail, you are not expected to remember where a message is when you need to retrieve it. Instead of perusing your inbox and other folders, you just search (“Search, don't sort,“ says https://gmail.google.com/). And we know Google is good at searching.
The “Search, don't sort“ mantra is not exclusive to Gmail. Better searching for things like email is a much heralded feature of the next version of Windows codenamed Longhorn. And Apple has announced a technology called “Spotlight“ (http://www.apple.com/macosx/tiger/spotlight.html) for searching your local hard drive. [Sidebar: Wasn't/isn't there something called Sherlock on MacOS that was supposed to do that years ago?] I remember Colin Ware telling me back in 1997 or 1998 that a way to easily search your local computer was imperative back then. Try using the file search built into Windows for anything moderately complex or interesting and you'll realize that we have not made much progress in 7 years.
Using Google to search a massive global knowledge base distributed across countless computers is easier than searching my local hard drive. There is a lot of important and/or interesting information on my computer in email, Word documents, PDF files, and several other types of files. But pulling up that data on demand is often impossible unless I have made efforts to keep it very well organized. As an industry we should be ashamed for building software that makes it too easy for users to “lose” their valuable information.
If Gmail is successful, we will be on our way to better times. Search-centric Webmail should inspire search-centric mail clients on the desktop. Making email easier to manage and find is a big first step in making all of our personal / local information as easy to find as it should be.
[Note: I use Outlook to manage my primary email account. I use its Find feature all the time to locate emails and it frustrates me almost on a daily basis. A fast Gmail style search for my desktop mail client would make me very happy! ]
[Final note: Gmail also displays context-sensitive ads based on the content of your mail messages. It is completely done by computers - humans don't read your mail to do this. I think it is innovative and I'm actually a little excited to see the types of ads that Google will show me based on the conversations I have with people.]
After spending at least the last 9 months using Windows Server 2003 on both my desktop and laptop computers, I have finally gone back to Windows XP on my laptop. I fell in love with WS2003 (oops, .NET Server) when it was in beta. I have been working on mostly ASP.NET Web applications sprinkled with some Web services and smart clients. WS2003 is a fantastic platform for Web apps. IIS 6 is one of the highlights of the OS for me. It's the primary reason I have put up with the pain of using a server OS on my workstations. And I like having multiple Web sites instead of multiple virtual directories for different projects.
But my patience has worn thin. WS2003 is a server product. Using it as a development workstation is just too quirky. I want DriveImage installed, for crying out loud (DriveImage foolishly won't install even in compat mode). I want to install drivers without screwing with compatibility mode. I want my hardware to be recognized! I want Virtual PC to run acceptably on my laptop. I want the UI to prioritize me.
Moving back to XP also gives me a chance to experience SP2 on one of my day-to-day machines, which is a good thing IMO. By the end of summer I will probably also move my desktop machine to XP - they have never even been introduced.
Anyone else out there have the same frustration? Do you love WS2003 but curse it during routine day-to-day desktop tasks? Maybe we should form a support group...