Today’s Cool Tool Friday topic is web-based email, and specifically Gmail. I got a beta account a few days ago (thanks to my old friend Paul Arce), and I immediately started playing with it. It didn’t take me long to find a couple of bugs, but that’s what betas are for, and generally speaking, I’m very impressed. There’s no question that it’s extremely well implemented, although whether that will translate into people switching accounts, I’m not entirely sure.
But before we get into Gmail, why use web-based email at all? I switched to web-based email a long time ago so that I would be free to switch ISPs at my leisure. I hated having my email associated with my ISP as much as I hated having my mobile number associated with my mobile service provider. I don’t care much for Hotmail, so I’ve been using Yahoo! mail for about five years, and I’ve had great success with it (actually, I use POP to access my Yahoo! mail, so the primary benefit is not being locked into an ISP). As a long-time web-based email user, therefore, I was very curious when I first heard about Gmail, and couldn’t wait to get my hands on an account.
What I like best about Gmail is probably the efficiency. It works with the same miraculous and blinding speed as Google which makes using a web interface much more bearable than it would otherwise be. Of course, I also like the ability to use Google search technology to search my email. And no, the ads don’t bother me. They are tasteful in their appearance, relatively inconspicuous, and actually not entirely unwelcome. Of course, given the choice, I would opt out, however there will probably be times when they might actually come in handy. Well-targeted advertising is good for the consumer as well as the advertiser. And there are no viral marketing messages in the footers of your emails!
Gmail’s general email model is different than other email clients. It doesn’t use your typical folder metaphor. In fact, there are no folders at all. You can “label” messages in your inbox with custom labels, but that does not file them away and take them out of your inbox (applying a label to a message is nothing more than a quick way to filter your email). There are three ways to get an email out of your inbox: report it as spam, throw it away, or archive it.
The model is clearly designed to cater to the way most people use email. Most people (from my experience) do not actually take the time to file away email messages in neat little hierarchical folders so they can easily find them again later. Most people have hundreds or thousands of email messages in their inboxes, and rely on messages being marked as unread to know what they should pay attention to. Gmail allows you to manage your inbox with a single click. If you want to save a message, just archive it. Don’t worry about where it goes, and about creating an intuitive folder structure so that you can find it again later. Just click the archive button and forget it. Once it comes time to retrieve it, Gmail provides you with a fairly sophisticated search interface which allows you to search by multiple criteria. It even has an intelligent date parser so you can type dates in any way you want (e.g. today, Friday, June 11, 6/11/2004). If you really need to keep tabs on an email, you can apply a label to it so that clicking on the label name in the left-hand column will retrieve it instantly.
I think this is a great model that most people will probably appreciate and find very intuitive, however it honestly makes me a little nervous. I’m one of those few who meticulously files away all but the most insignificant of emails, and can usually find what I’m looking for in a matter of seconds. Email is very important to me, so I’m a little reluctant to drastically change the way I use it. On the other hand, email needs to evolve, and I think Gmail is an important evolutionary step, so perhaps I will leave my old ways behind and try something new. After all, if Gmail were just like Yahoo!, what would be the point? What would there be to get excited about?
The biggest issue I have with switching my personal email account from Yahoo! to Gmail is that I use POP to retrieve my Yahoo! mail which allows me to read it (and organize it) right alongside my Macromedia email, and my other email accounts. If I were to switch my personal email account to Gmail, I would have my email in two different places, and have to stay on top of two very different interfaces. Gmail may someday provide POP access, however they also may not since retrieving your Gmail mail through a local POP client will circumvent all of Gmail’s innovations, not to mention their advertising. If they go this route, it will almost certainly not be free (which I think is fair enough). They may also eventually release a local Gmail client which would seamlessly integrate with your web mail (and bring ads right to your desktop), which would be interesting, but it still would not allow me to use Outlook or Apple Mail.
As I said, I’ve been using Yahoo! mail for probably about five years, and I’ve been very happy with it. It’s gone through some rough patches, but for the most part, the price is great, and it’s very reliable. I hardly ever use the web interface, but when I do, I find it adequate (not nearly as nice as Gmail’s), and I like that my Yahoo! account givesme access to so many other services, as well (Yahoo! Messenger, mobile alerts, Yahoo! finanace, etc.).
How many others out there use web-based email? Which service do you use, and why? What do you like and hate about it? Gmail users, what do you think of it so far? Are you a convert, or just playing with the idea, like I am?