Just about all of us have an online email account. I personally have several online email accounts, and I have lost many accounts due to the providers going out of business. Does anyone remember ZDNet mail? Anyways, Google has come up with their own email service and it is making some serious waves. Not only because it is innovative, but also because there are some privacy concerns.
Search, don’t sort.
Use Google search to find the exact message you want, no matter when it was sent or received.
Don’t throw anything away.
1000 megabytes of free storage so you’ll never need to delete another message.
Keep it all in context.
Each message is grouped with all its replies and displayed as a conversation.
No pop-up ads. No untargeted banners.
You see only relevant text ads and links to related web pages of interest.
I have been following the Gmail action for some time now. I have been hoping for an invitation and I even considered purchasing one on Ebay, so when my boss got his invitation and later sent me one, I was ecstatic and quickly went out to get my account. The hardest part of signing up is picking out your name. Because everything is so new, the names are mostly up for grabs. Unfortunately my first choice was taken, so I had to go for my second. After agreeing to a lengthy terms and conditions I got in and started checking things out.
The first thing that I noticed is that the interface is very plain. Unlike my Hotmail account there are no flashing banners and obnoxious popups flying all over the place. This surprised me because I know Google has to make money some how, and I know they were planning on using an Adsense-like advertising system. So where are the ads? I looked around (you know someone’s crazy when they go looking for ads) and I could not find them. For now I dismissed them and moved on to other features.
I wanted to see how Gmail organizes the emails. Google does not have folders and so I was curious about what this label thing was all about. I went to another account and sent myself a couple messages. I started clicking refresh in the inbox to see when they came. They quickly appeared and I started playing with labels. Labels are kind of like folders. They provide the organizational features of a folder, but unlike folders, you can apply multiple labels to your emails. In fact, the Inbox, Starred, Spam and Trash “tabs” are nothing more than labels. This means that Gmail is storing all your emails in one pile, and the inbox just looks for those with the inbox label. That seems like an interesting thing to do. I suppose with 1GB of storage, it doesn’t matter if your trash and spam use up some of your space.
There is also one other feature of organization that can be helpful. That would be the ‘star’ feature. By marking a message with a star you can give yourself a visual reminder that you need to revisit the conversation and reply or do something else with it. A star will override any other label and display the message in the star tab. You’re other labels still apply, but they will not block the message from being in the star folder unless you have applied the spam or trash label and that is for obvious reasons. You can still put stars on messages in the trash and spam tab, but they will not show up in the star folder. Gmail should probably remove the star option from those tabs to remove any potential confusion.
After I had received and responded to a few emails, I started to notice the ads. They appear on the right hand side of the page when you are reading your emails. I was pleasantly surprised because from the media coverage, it sounded like the ads would be in the body of the email. This way they are very unobtrusive, and they are not attached to emails that you send. I think this is a great idea and I hope other online companies will go for the classy ads and not flashy, annoying popup ads. There is a bit of controversy surrounding the way ads are targeted toward the emails topic. The Gmail software will read through your emails and look for key words that relate to ads. When the system finds those words, then a relating ad will be displayed.
I also noticed with my email, that everything is organized in ‘conversations’. Gmail does not display each email by itself. Instead, all emails are grouped into threads by subject. The threads include both emails you send, and those that you receive. I am starting to get used to this method of organization, and it may still take a while. It is different than any other email program that I know of. By default only the last email is displayed and the rest are compressed. All you have to do is click on the title of each message to expand it. You will also notice that at the bottom of every email, except the first, is a small link ‘- Show quoted text -‘ this will display the email a little more like a traditional email and show all the text from the previous emails. Below that, you also have a reply and forward link. Clicking either one of these links will cause the page to expand and a new box to appear where you can type your message. The same thing happens if you click on the text box that is below the reply and forward link, it defaults as a reply. Up at the top of the message you will see a ‘More options,’ this will expand the header and give you more information about the message and more options like viewing the original message with all headers.
With a few emails in my inbox and archived, I wanted to check out the search feature. This will probably be the most frequently used option when trying to find messages. The search feature is filled with great options. You can search in a specific label including inbox, trash, spam and any new ones that you define. You can also search by date, subject, and the body of the email. You can even limit your search to only those emails that do or do not have attachments. Being that Google is first a search company, it is no wonder that they offer such a thorough search option for emails.
Along with the Search feature is also a filter feature. The filter is very similar to the search, except for a couple things. For obvious reasons the filter does not have a date feature, this is because filters are applied as the email comes in. Filters can also be saved, and you can have multiple filters working on your emails at the same time.
Emails that you no longer want to see in your inbox can be sent to the archive. The archive is nothing more than an email that has the inbox label removed from it. You can still apply your personal labels to the email, but as soon as you apply either the inbox, trash or spam label, then it comes out of archive. Your archived emails can be accessed from the ‘All Mail’ link.
As I said at the beginning, one of the first things I noticed was the interface is very clean. Gmail, like the Google search engine, has a very simple, clean and straight-forward interface. Google has given Gmail several interesting features as well. One thing I noticed is that if you click the check box next to a message, then it is still checked if you go to another page where the message is. Even if you leave the page and come back it is still checked. Another nice feature is that of keyboard shortcuts. These are turned off by default, but if you turn them on in the settings page, then you have access to many of the most useful functions without using the mouse. Also, on the settings page are options to change the name that is shown on emails you send, change your reply to email, add a signature and turn on or off snippets and personal indicators. One of the few things that bothers me is that there is no size displayed for the emails. It would be nice to see which ones are taking up a lot of space. Gmail developers probably figured that since your inbox would never fill up you would not have to worry about sizes.
Sending email through gmail is very much like any other online email program. The only major feature that Gmail adds is spell checking. You will notice the link at the bottom and at the top of the page next to the Send and Discard buttons. This is a major feature since most online email programs do not have a spell check, and since I am a terrible speller. There is also a feature that Gmail is missing, there is no way to get people from your contacts list to your email once you have started typing your message. The contacts page allows you to click on a name but that opens up a new window with a blank message, and this lacks the ability to add more than one person at a time. I guess you could copy and paste each address into the box, but that is a pain especially if you have a lot. Along with sending, you also get a 10MB attachment limit to all outgoing and incoming email. Even though it is limited, it is still much larger than most others.
Gmail does offer a spam filter, and needless to say I don’t yet get a lot of spam in my inbox (I would like to keep it that way), so I cannot comment on how effective it is. However, there is someone by the name of Aaron Pratt ( [email protected] ), who has decided to test the spam filters of Google’s Gmail service by having his Gmail account blasted with every kind of spam imaginable. He is testing to see how well Gmail’s spam filters can sort out the spam from legitimate email. As of May 25th, he was at about 30% of his Gmail account’s 1GB capacity, and Gmail was successfully filtering about 52% of all his spam. You can track his progress on his website, http://gmail.prattboy.net.
At the moment, Gmail does not allow POP3 or SMTP access. You are limited to using Google’s Web interface in order to access all your emails. In their FAQ, they say they are going to add non-Gmail access later. They will probably charge for this feature since you will not see their ads if you are not using the web interface. Also, Gmail will not allow you to have a username that is shorter then 6 characters. In its terms and conditions, the Google says the email can only be used for personal use, but I am sure that many professionals will use it as a backup email service, or as somewhere to forward emails with big attachments.
So with all the good features and options in Gmail, what is all the controversy about? Well it all stems around privacy, and some politicians wanting to impose their views and beliefs on the ignorant masses. Why would they be having a fit about this? Well, in the Gmail terms and conditions it says that a computer will read your emails and find certain keywords that match advertising. The privacy advocates claim that this violates your privacy and therefore no one should even have the option to use the service. I find it completely ludicrous when people like Sen. Liz Figueroa and some European groups say they would introduce legislation to block use of the service. What business is it of theirs to tell me I cannot use a great service like this? If I want to give up some of my privacy so I can have 1 GB of email space, then so be it. Really, if you think about it, email is transmitted over the internet in plain text, so anyone can read it. Every single router that sends your email can read it, and ever single admin that manages those routers can read it. So why doesn’t the fine senator try and pass legislation that requires emails to be encrypted. That would be a far better use of her time. Well enough of my ranting’s, it all comes down to if you’re paranoid, then don’t use email at all because it is all plain text, it’s like writing a letter on the outside of an envelop before you mail it. If you want to use a great service and get great benefits then sign up.
Now I am not totally anti-privacy, there is one ‘feature’ on Gmail that bothers me. There is a clause in the terms and conditions regarding emails remaining in the system once they have been deleted. I don’t know why Gmail would want to keep our emails. I can only explain this by thinking that Gmail is just protecting themselves incase a user deletes an email, but it may still be in some cache somewhere or on a backup tape or something. This makes sense, and I hope that they are not intentionally storing deleted emails for other purposes.
Overall I am very happy with the features and service that Gmail is offering. They are constantly changing and adding new features and options. The changes are to be expected since it is still in beta. The user interface is top notch and definitely gives other web mail companies something to aspire to. I cannot wait until it goes live and they get all features finalized and added.
|JusTech'n editors' rating|