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Google does email
Bigger is better, but Gmail is still kinky

I collect email accounts like some people collect, well, normal things. So when Google announced its intention last month to launch Gmail, a new email service that comes with a gigabyte of storage space per account, I was giddy. I wanted. And, thanks to my status as an active user of Blogger (which was recently bought by Google), I got — an invitation to beta-test Gmail, that is.

Once the thrill of choosing a spanky new username wore off, however, I found myself perplexingly ambivalent about Gmail. Why was I not eagerly contacting my friends with my swanky new address? When would I get around to sending out that pair of invites that came with the account, to bring two more lucky souls into the Gmail fold? What could possibly be wrong with a free, mammoth email account from the hippest Internet company in the world?

Most of my issues with Gmail are small things that will probably be fixed in the final release. However, it’s the fundamental structure of the service that really throws me for a curve.

Gmail is built on the premise that, with 1000 megabytes of storage (the standard Yahoo account comes with 4 MB; Hotmail comes with 2 MB), users won’t need to delete anything — ever. As such, emails are organized in a unique way — not just by the order in which they are received, but also clustered together like a threaded message board. So when you receive a reply to an email you sent out last week, that reply is displayed at the top of your inbox — along with your original email and any previous emails with the same subject line. Gmail calls these threads "conversations" and offers several options for viewing, searching, and collapsing them.

Problem is, not everybody uses the subject line the same way. I have friends with whom I’ve exchanged emails on various topics, ranging over weeks or even months, without ever bothering to change the original subject line. I have other friends with whom the subject line is a source of constant amusement and creative inspiration, never staying the same twice — even on replies. So what does Gmail’s threading function make of such behavior? A mess.

In an ideal world (hint, hint, Google), users would be able to toggle the threading function on and off. And in non-threading mode, messages would be sortable by sender, date, or subject line — a function that’s currently absent from the service.

Another side effect of Gmail’s fascination with its own size is the delete button. It doesn’t exist. Google would much prefer that you "Archive." To discard a message one must use a non-intuitive drop-down menu, which offers the option, at the very bottom of the list, to "Move to Trash."

Gmail does have some appealing features, though, in addition to its massive storage space. Tops on my list are:

The address auto-complete function. While address-book functionality is generally poor in Gmail (more on that in a minute), this is a great feature. If you’re sending an email to somebody in your Gmail address book, a list of matching options will pop up below the "To" field; options are eliminated as you continue to type.

Group-mailing indicators. There’s a handy feature under "Settings" that will tag messages sent just to you with a double arrow (>>) and messages sent to your address (i.e., you’re one of a group, not a mailing list) with a single arrow (>).

Shortcuts. For those who loathe the mouse, Gmail offers more keyboard shortcuts than you can shake a stick at. "C" for compose, "O" for open, "Y" for archive — the list goes on. Notably absent, however, is a shortcut for adding an attachment.

Attachments. The speed with which Gmail handles attachments almost makes up for all its other flaws combined. Click "Attach a file" and you’re instantly brought to a browsing window on your hard drive. Double-click the desired file and it’s instantly attached. (Are you getting the "instant" theme?) Rumor has it you can send up to 10 MB of attachments per message, though the Gmail terms of service don’t address the issue. I sent a 1.84 MB music file in less than a minute, a feat I wouldn’t even attempt on Yahoo or Hotmail.

Spellcheck. It’s fast, it’s functional, it’s elegant. A model for email-based spellcheckers everywhere.

So what needs improvement? Aside from threading issues and the phantom delete button, the Gmail address book is in want of some serious love.

There are several weaknesses here, the foremost being that there’s no way to select multiple addresses and have them automatically inserted into the "To" field. Each address in a group mailing must be entered by hand, or cut and pasted. In the same vein, there’s currently no way to create groups or mailing lists within the address book. Even getting to the "Contacts" area is a pain in the ass: There’s a small link — not even a button — in the upper right section of the screen. How about a shortcut key, guys?

And perhaps the most maddening aspect of the Gmail address book: Entries are alphabetized by email address. Yeah, go figure.

Jess Kilby can be reached, at least until Gmail is out of beta, at jesskilby@yahoo.com

The Technophilia archives.

Issue Date: May 14 - 20, 2004
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