Posted on July 5th, 2005 1 comment
Google’s Beta Web-Based E-Mail Service Provides Great Features For Individuals, Web Developers and Small Business Too
Hotmail, now a part of MSN, is probably the oldest and most well known provider of a web-based email service. It’s a simple pitch: You sign up online for a new email address and in minutes, start managing your email on a website instead of your desktop email program. Free open-source software such as Horde, Neomail, Squirrel Mail, and a few other less well-known solutions also allow you to receive, send, view and store email messages online and have become a popular feature included free with most internet hosting packages. For most business users with Office on a PC, the thought of not using Outlook may seem a bit scary, and to be fair, there are many reasons why using desktop email programs such as Outlook a necessity for certain things. But after using GMail – Google’s new easy-to-use online email program – I have to admit, the more I use GMail the more like it.
Google recently “soft launched” its new GMail (still in Beta) via a unique “invitation” approach, presumably starting with Google employees and their closest friends, and then spreading to the net “by invitation only”. But lets face it – GMail is yet another hosted email solution, so the web community is split between – yawn – and expecting big things from the largest name in web search. Well, I was lucky enough to get an “invite” for the “soft launch” – and after putting GMail through the paces… how does it stack up? Well, let’s just say I have added GMail to my toolbar. In a nutshell, even in Beta, it shows promise of being the best web-based email solution yet. Here are some surprising reasons why.
GMail helps you compose and sort messages very rapidly, and the interface is surprisingly snappy. GMail is fast even as compared to the latest version of Microsoft Outlook on a 3GHz+ P4, and much, much faster than other web-based email clients, which by contrast are woefully slow. The speed of working with your email within the GMail interface is probably its most noticeable feature.
In addition to being fast, GMail is also elegant and intuitive. For instance, when you click and start typing into the Send To: field, GMail brings up all the email addresses you’ve sent to the moment you press your first key. You type J and instantly Jeff, Joe, John and Jim’s email addresses appear for selecting. You type Jo and Jeff and Jim disappear and you’re left with Joe and John. In most cases, I end up typing less than 3 letters to address my messages.
Another nice part of the interface is that it’s rather un-cluttered. For example, when reading an email thread, the older messages in the thread are hidden behind a tiny “show quoted text ” link. This helps you concentrate on the most current content and prevents you have having to scroll through lots of lines starting with “>>>>”. (SEE #7)
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Google would build a robust search engine into their GMail webmail service, which is, of course, based on their web search. The first thing you will notice about searching within your GMail is that it is incredibly fast, so quick it will surprise you. There’s no spinning beach ball or turning hourglass needed. Results appear almost instantly – which is rare even in desktop email programs, let alone online services. Once you get bored with the blazing fast search results and need more searching power, GMail has that covered, too, with Advanced Search.
I had to dive into GMail’s help pages on advanced searching and even look up some topics in the GMail User Forum before I learned to take full advantage of built-in Google searching applied to my email. But the research was worth every minute because the power and speed of complex searching is also very impressive.
For instance, to instantly find any message from Bill, I simply type “from:bill” (no quotes). The search results appear so fast, and the syntax is so easy to master, that it makes the concept of sorting into folders or making filters to apply labels seem like a waste of time. In other words, if the reason for sorting email into folders is to save time finding them – and GMail makes it instantaneous to find email messages – it renders folders (even its own labels) obsolete.
You can also find mail from a group of people using the word “or”; Example: from:peggy OR from:sue; or parentheses and a vertical bar; Example: from:(bill|tom|fred) finds all the email from Bill, Tom, or Fred. You might be able to do that in Outlook or Mail, but just setting up the search parameters will take longer than finding results on GMail. Macintosh OSX users already spoiled with Spotlight’s instant searching capabilities of the new Tiger operating system will feel right at home using GMail. It is, surprisingly, one of the most responsive email programs I have ever used.
* Google proclaims they’re completely free unlike other online email providers. In their GMail support pages, Google states, “All you need is an invitation from a current Gmail user.”
As an interesting side-note related to internet & viral marketing: I have a hunch part of the marketing plan is purposely based on the ‘by invitation only’ concept – I’m sure Google can track who invited whom to see how accounts have sprung up around the globe. It would be neat to see the spread of GMail account adoption diagrammed.
Each user has up to 50 invitations, according to a blue widget on the lower-left corner of the GMail interface, but I invited someone and the number is still set at 50, so I’m not sure if that is fictitious.
If you’re happy with your desktop email program, you can turn on the POP features in your GMail account settings, which lets you use your Free GMail account with your existing email client. There are lots of reasons why having a secondary, Free email account can be advantageous (especially one with so much storage space). If you work in an office where supervisors may read email in your corporate inbox, sending a quick reminder to yourself via GMail instead will almost certainly go undetected.
Rather than using a folder-based metaphor for organizing email messages like most email clients, GMail uses Labels. Die-hard Outlook users are going to instantly feel disoriented without folders, but I urge you to transcend the folder metaphor. As of the beta version, the labels are not colorized, which would be a welcome addition that would aid in scanning and sorting.
Labels allow you to categorize and sort your email in a fashion similar to folders, but with greater flexibility. One of the best things about labeling your email messages in GMail, as opposed to sorting them into folders like most email programs force you to do, is that a single message can have multiple labels applied to it, instead of residing in a single folder.
For example, I use GMail to track the website leads generated from multiple websites. So I have labels that correspond to different clients. But in addition, what makes labels better, is that I can also separate Rants and Errors from Raves and Testimonials across all my clients. That one feature alone makes GMail worth the $0.00 price admission* (SEE #3)
Instead of setting up Rules to move your Email into Folders, with GMail, you set up Filters to apply Labels to Conversations (SEE #7). GMail has made it very simple to create filters to label your mail. However, an account only allows you to create 20 filters (in the Beta version). Hopefully this will be a limitation they will remove when GMail goes live. As you work with GMail, you may find that 20 filters are plenty, because you can search your mail fast enough and accurately enough to not need a labeling system. (SEE #2)
GMail provides 2.3 GB of space to store email messages (and counting). That’s over two thousand megabytes. Most internet hosting packages costing $5-10 per month offer you less storage space, so for most people, a couple gig could last years. To put it into perspective, in older times of text-only emails, 2GB would be a ridiculously enormous of space. But with more and more people using HTML formatting, and attaching images and video to email messages, a couple gigs doesn’t seem so big anymore.
As a web developer I actually have a lot of email to keep track of from the various accounts that I have for different purposes. Using GMail, I can store, search and sort thousands of email messages. Auto archiving rules built into GMail help you as your messages collect over time.
Is 2GB enough? Do a Get Info on your Outlook.pst and see how big it is, or ask tech support at your ISP to help you look up your online email account’s .mail storage file on your server. If it is approaching 2GB – GMail may not be right for you (and you may also want to look into how to archive it).
According to this GMail Support page, they will “give you more space as they are able.” It will be interesting to see what that may mean over time. When I started writing this article 2 weeks ago, I only had 2.2 GB of space, and today it says 2.35 GB, so it would appear that Google gave me an extra 135 MB of space for simply noticing the usage stat at the bottom of the screen.
One additional note on space – GMail allows a single message attachment to be up to 10 MB. The average full-length, iTunes-quality MP3 or a high-resolution photo from an 8 megapixel digital cameral saved as a JPG are both around 6 MB, so I would judge 10 MB to be a rather robust attachment size. Many ISPs block attachments above 2 MB.
To be fair, you can “drive” most programs with the tab, alt, control and command keys, rather than using a mouse. For certain things, it’s actually a bit easier and faster than using a mousing and clicking around. GMail’s set of keyboard commands don’t even require key combos – they’re all one key at a time, like c for compose, k for newer (next) and j for older (previous) – no control keys required. A few two-key macros (not two at a time, but one after the other) let you do repetitive tasks, for instance “y then o” archives the current message and moves to next message. One missing key combo I’d like would be “t then o” to Trash message and move on.
Although disabled by default, it pays off to learn the few keyboard shortcuts that GMail has implemented to make browsing through email even faster than using a mouse. By accessing your Settings, you can turn on keyboard shortcuts and click the ‘Learn More’ link to see what you can do with them. Once you memorize a few simple keys, you can really work quickly.
We’ve all sifted through rows of garbled text, fragmented HTML code (aka gobbledygook), and indented replies created by various email programs in longer, back-and-forth email conversations. Normally this is time consuming, frustrating and highly inefficient, especially for business communication. GMail displays email threads as a ‘Conversation’ and conveniently hides the reply text so you can focus what was said, in order, one message at a time. Conversation view prevents you from having to scan a bunch of junk that hinders quick understanding. “Show Quoted Text” Links embedded in the Conversation view allow you to expand and reply to any one of the messages in the thread if you need to see what was said previously.
As with many of GMail’s user interface features, it is easier to use than it is to explain. The explanation makes it sound much more complex than it actually is – and seeing is believing.
WYSIWYG means “what you see is what you get,” and with GMail that sums it up nicely. Composing email in HTML format is a snap using GMail. You can compose messages with styled text, bullet lists, numbered items, and add links with ease. This feature is not as robust as other parts of GMail, but it’s fast and efficient and works as you would expect.
After seeing many users get frustrated after attempting to use Microsoft Word as the ‘advanced editor’ within Outlook 2003, GMail’s composer is refreshingly streamlined. One nice feature would be the ability to add inline images to email messages, although you can attach files up to 10 MB. It would also be nice to be able to view the HTML Source being created for pasting into my HTML editor and back again, but as a beta release, it is adequate.
GMail includes a Free SPAM folder that works great from the moment you start using your account. In other words, unlike many SPAM reducing programs, little to no setup is required for the SPAM filter to start working.
The ability to select a message and “Report as SPAM” helps to prevent you from getting the same spam email more than once. It also alerts the GMail server that a SPAM was received – which also helps prevent other GMail users from receiving the message. Since it’s not a 3rd-party add-on feature of a program, but a native aspect of the GMail interface, it works very well. The GMail SPAM filter automatically flags SPAM more accurately and efficiently than most $39+ programs I’ve tried, and it’s included Free. Plus, there’s just something rewarding about clicking a button labeled “Delete Forever”.
Yes, although having advertising in your face may seem like an un-wanted feature, for web developers and internet marketing managers alike, having relevant AdWords right inside your email is actually rather helpful – especially if you manage your own or your clients AdWords accounts.
To give an example, while reading an email message from a colleague about an upcoming conference in Las Vegas, you might see Las Vegas flights and hotel booking AdWords ads appear on the right. Intrusive or Helpful? Ultimately user and advertiser feedback over time will reveal the answer. If it keeps GMail free, then I’m all for it.
As an online marketer, I manage AdWords accounts for my clients. In some instances I’ve had my client’s ads pop up on email threads concerning the AdWords ads themselves, from the client, because we’re discussing the relevant keywords they want to advertise in our email conversation. I screenshot it and save it as a proof… the digital equivalent of a tear-sheet for print ads.
Not only that, my clients are amazed when I tell them that their AdWords ads may start appearing inside people’s email when it is related to the email message. The average person hasn’t really pondered what that may mean for online marketing, and nobody knows for certain what impact it will have. Chances are you will notice them when they are most applicable to what your email thread is about.
Is there anything lacking in the new GMail program? I’d love to be able to sort (order) my Inbox and All Mail messages by sender, date, etc. The lack of this feature is a bit surprising. Although labels do the trick even better, some users may find the lack of folders disorienting, especially at first. I’d like to be able to colorize my labels. More robust HTML editing tools would be helpful to web developers. I’ll eventually need more than 20 filters. An online iCal-like calendar system would be great, but it’s clearly outside the scope of a web-based Email manager. But these are minor nit-picks, many of which are probably slated for inclusion in the production release.
GMail has perhaps the fastest and most elegant web-based email search features yet invented. It’s so fast and intuitive, GMail even gives desktop email programs a run for their money. It’s free and offers tons of space. It lets you sort by labeling, which is more robust than folders. You can compose in HTML and view replies and threads more quickly and easily.
If you’re outgrowing your desktop email program, sick of waiting for your existing webmail to download, or just would like an additional free account, bribe a current GMail user for an invite and take it for a test-drive. What do you have to lose? It’s free.