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GMail

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Everybody knows what GMail, offspring of Google, is by now. There have been rave reviews, privacy concerns and comments by everyone and their cats on the service, its weaknesses and strengths. I’ll add another one of each.

Trying it

Google’s first coup was to make the whole beta test ‘invite only’ during the two months that ‘social network’ websites were popular. This made the whole service special and worth bragging with. Yet Google made sure there were enough ‘invites’ to go round to almost everyone. Even me, thanks to David Pensanto who let me have one of his invites.

Webmail

Hence Google got quite a bit of mindshare and hype for an as yet nonexisting service by playing their cards cleverly. But apart from that, with their 1GB storage offer, they also stirred up the webmail market and most other players have changed their offerings to more reasonable storage limits since.

Generally I think that webmail is a bad idea for regular mail usage. You don’t have any control over your data and you’ll have to trust your service provider that your personal communications will still exist the next time you log in. Also usability-wise webmail tends to be much worse than proper e-mail applications.

However, there is room for webmail services. When you’re travelling, for example. Or for people who don’t have their own computers. Particularly for the latter webmail can be very important and having good webmail services should be considered crucial.

Dislikes

Let me quickly list my dislikes about GMail: Webmail sucks, frames in web pages suck, JavaScript sucks, convoluted web pages suck, using my e-mail for marketing sucks. Riight, things don’t look to good here as GMail is guilty of all of these.

There are also a few other points, like currently not listing Netscape 4 as a compatible browser – not being maximally compatible with browsers defeats the point of webmail when you want to use it from internet cafés with old computers all over the world. I also dislike that ‘delete’ isn’t an easily accessible command – sure this may defeat the point of GMail, but I still like deleting stuff. Or that ‘Report Spam’ sounds so official that at first I felt guilty marking stuff as spam which I probably subscribed to some time but dislike now and want to get rid of without the hassle of unsubscribing.

Other weaknesses include that I have the impression that I’ll need to ‘archive’ my messages manually page by page and that the amount of storage GMail claims I use looks rather high to me.

Good points

After listing the first paragraph of bad points, the question is whether there are any good ones. And I think there are. But to begin with consider these bad points again and notice that, apart from the frames perhaps, they also apply to any other big webmail service. So that was actually par for the course. And that means that GMail could actually be a real winner because it gets a couple of other things right.

This begins with the login: GMail will remember my login and spare me the pain of having to manually log in over and over again. This is optional, though, and for a fortnight only – thus providing a reasonable degree of safety. GMail also offers secure connections (which version 2 of PithHelmet has a ready made setting to ‘transmogrify’ for you into place automatically – if you’re to lazy to type that extra ‘s’, that is), something that many other services don’t.

Then, it doesn’t have any banners, ‘community’ or other crap attached. I don’t have to go and search my e-mail on the page but it’s right there, because it’s the only thing displayed. In fact it’s there very efficiently presented, giving me sender, subject, date and the first few letters on a single line. And the list of new e-mails updates automatically in the background. That’s nice and not bad for a web site.

Eventually there is the interaction with the site. And yes, there is ‘proper’ interaction. You can press keys and things happen. They don’t make pages reload but actually change things. Not bad for a website, once more. I’d say, GMail is a webmail service that almost reaches the usability of pine. And while this sounds ironic and may tell us a lot of how ‘advanced’ modern browser based techniques are in comparison to the old fashioned terminal, it is actually about the best compliment I could make to such a service. Pine remains one of the most efficient e-mail programs I know.

I should admit that I haven’t used GMail extensively and I’m sure I’d find some nits to pick if I did. Yet, even in its beta version it beats any other webmail service I know usability-wise. Hands down.

Finally there is of course the whole ‘find don’t file’ concept. I love it and have been waiting for this for a long time. I hope that Apple’s Mail engineers will do at least as well for X.4’s mail. It’s rare that advances in software go from the web to proper applications.

There are of course other things: A spell checker, an address book that imports your e-mail addresses and e-mail addresses only, threaded discussions, to name the most prominent ones. Not bad at all for the web.

Conclusion

I am tempted to think that all the points where GMail seems bad now, like privacy, are mostly FUD stuff. I wouldn’t trust any webmail service, particularly non-EU ones, to respect my privacy anyway. And in all other points it simply beats all other services I’ve seen hands down. In a beta version.

If Google now manages to live up to their other promises, such as decent localisations, POP access, they have a winner at their hand. One that’s vastly superior to the heap of crap known as Hotmail. It remains to be seen what the Beast does about it.

No new mail! There’s always Google News if you’re looking for something to read.

August 19, 2004, 23:35

Tagged as software.

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