tyler butler

GMail: A Review (Updated)

When Google first announced their new GMail service, I was relatively unimpressed. The big deal was the gigabyte of storage. Of course, a gig is a lot of storage space, especially when compared to most quotas for other web-based email services such as Yahoo and Hotmail (Yahoo has since upped its quota to 100 MB) , but I have been using Outlook (I know - many don’t like this program, but I have never had any problems) as a mail/contacts/calendar manager for a long time, and I tend to POP my mail. That means I have lots and lots of gigs for mail, because everything just goes to my hard drive.

After doing a little more reading, though, I discovered that GMail actually had a really spiffy interface, was fast, and introduced some really cool ways to categorize, sort, and store your email. It makes sense, really. If I am Google, and I want to introduce a new service, I first stop and think, “What do we do really well as a company?” Obviously, in Google’s case, the answer is searching. From there, I start thinking, “Email is the largest volume of information most every person in the world has to try and keep organized.” If I am Google, and I want to introduce an email service, I’d better be able to leverage my strength in the search department to make it exciting. To really leverage search capabilities, I need a large volume of email - hence the 1GB quota. You see, I think that Google only offers 1GB of space because that is what is necessary to really make GMail’s other features stand out. Other email providers won’t be able to compete with GMail solely by increasing their quotas, because that large volume of information introduces an organizational problem that Google is better suited to solve. I think Google started looking at ways they could leverage their search engine on email, and realized that they needed a large email base to be able to provide that, not the other way around. All in all, I decided I definitely needed to check it out, so I asked a guy at work to hook me up with an account.

The Interface

Well, they weren’t kidding. GMail is fast (though I have’t tried it on a non- broadband connection yet). GMail is spiffy-looking (very minimalistic, but done well). GMail is useable. GMail is just cool. As you can see from the screenshot, there really isn’t a whole lot to the interface. Links on the left to get to various classifications of email, emails displayed in the middle with the standard checkbox to select them and a star to set them apart from other emails (comparable to flags in Outlook), and some “action links” along the top and bottom of the message display. Nothing terribly groundbreaking, but this is email, not rocket science.

Before I could really take a look at things, though, I needed some emails. That become my first problem. I first set up my @iit.edu account to forward to both my @tylerbutler.com and @gmail.com accounts. I thought this was working - but it wasn’t. In fact, for an entire weekend, I got no emails forwarded from my @iit.edu account, because the stupid webmail IIT uses didn’t properly parse the delimiter between the two addresses (I’ll save that rant for another time, I guess). I was confused at not getting any email (save the spam that came in directly to my @tylerbutler.com account), but I just figured nobody loved me. Stranger things have happened, after all.

Anyway, I finally managed to get some email into GMail, and was happy to see that things looked like I expected - sort of. The most exciting thing to me about GMail was the concept of conversations. Each email is displayed in the context of other emails sent from you back to someone, or from them back to you. For example, if Brad writes me an email, then I respond to him, our emails will be grouped and displayed together as a conversation. This makes sense, since many times emails follow a threaded conversational format. For personal emails, conversations are great.

One of the quirks with conversations that I’ve noticed is that they’re displayed as “Brad, me(2).” This means, of course, that this conversation is between Brad and me, and that there are two emails in the conversation. But who is Brad? I would much prefer if the last names were listed. I know lots of people, and to me, first names alone don’t help a whole lot for descriptive purposes. I have a conversation between myself and two other people, both named Kyle. GMail displays the conversation as “Kyle, Kyle, me.” It’s confusing which Kyle each is referring to. I imagine this could get even more confusing as I get more and more email into my inbox. Also, some of my professors use Dr. X as their outgoing name. Conversations with these people are displayed as “Dr., me(3).” This particular quirk consistently makes me laugh, so it’s all good.

Another problem I have with the GMail interfce is that it doesn’t display full email addresses in the “from” field when a name isn’t specified. In the case of personal emails, this isn’t usually a problem, but I get a lot of automated emails from addresses like support@domain.com. These emails simply display as from “support,” while in Outlook they always displayed as “support@domain.com.” In this case, I think GMail should opt to display it the way Outlook does, and display the email address when a name field isn’t specified.

Contact Management

GMail does a decent job with its contacts/address book functionality. It contains fields for name, email, and notes, and it provides an import utility that can read Comma-Separated files. I exported my Outlook contacts to a CSV file and easily imported them all into GMail. Interestingly, all the extraneous fields were placed into the Notes field, so the data is still visible. I definitely don’t want to lose that information (addresses, instant message names, even some birthdays), so I am glad that GMail tries to keep it available in some format. Fortunately for me, Plaxo handles my address book now, so it’s all backed up and available online anyway.

A Monumental Decision (a bit of a segue)

Initially, I thought GMail would be a great supplement to my mobile lifestyle – I could keep mobile copies of all my email, plus test out this new conversational mode and see what it was like. So I downloaded Pop Goes the GMail, a utility that allows you to fetch your GMail from any POP email client, including Outlook. Unfortunately, the version I downloaded just didn’t work for me (known bug), and I couldn’t find an old version (links that said they were for the older version actually linked to the new one), so I gave up. But that got me thinking - is there really any reason I want to stick with Outlook, other than to have access to all my old emails? I thought about the other functionality Outlook provides that I use: Contact Management and Calendaring. Well, Plaxo takes care of my contact management, and GMail has copies of all the email addresses already, since I uploaded the CSV file. I’ve been thinking for a long time about switching my calendaring to an online format anyway, since I don’t use Exchange, but I would like to allow my parents and other interested people see my schedule. I really wish I could get iCal for Windows, but since I can’t, I plan to use the calendar on this website.

Between GMail, Plaxo, and Geeklog, I have a total online replacement for Outlook! So having made the decision to switch over to GMail completely, I set about making the transition.

The Transition Begins

Initially, I thought I’d just use Outlook to access my old email. But then I started thinking that the conversation viewing would be much more useful if I ha all my old email available. A quick visit to Google produced a link to Mark Lyon’s GMail Loader, an application that will forward email from an MBOX file to a GMail account. Perfect! Only one problem - it doesn’t support PST files, which is what Outlook uses. Mark provides some great links to utilities on his site, but the PST -> MBOX converter doesn’t support Outlook 2003’s PST format - in fact none of the ones I found did. So I was forced to import things folder by folder into Outlook Express, then convert the OE DBX files into MBX files using the utility Mark linked to on his site, DBXConv. Then, just for good measure, I ran MBox Cleaner on the MBX files. This process is time consuming - especially for my thousands and thousands of emails. In fact, I am still working on this part.

I decided to go ahead and split things up a bit so that I could test the upload through GML and make sure things were working. GML uploaded everything I gave it fine, but it is kind of slow, and GMail is even slower at displaying the messages after they’re sent. I am sure this has something to do with the sorting and scanning (for advertisement targeting, more info below), but it is kind of annoying. I am really paranoid, so I keep track of the number of emails I uploaded, and I don’t start uploading a new batch until I’ve confirmed that all the mail from the pervious batch arrived. Thus far, everything seems to be working fine, albeit a bit slowly.

As far as Mark’s GML is concerned - it is a nifty little program. Two things, though. Most importantly, the emails that you upload to GMail will be timestamped when they actually arrived at GMail, not when they were initally received. This is kind of annoying, since I would prefer everything to be in order, but I don’t think it’s Mark’s fault - I think it’s a limitation in the way he has to interface with GMail right now. Maybe once GMail goes live, there will be a better way to import old email. I am keeping my imported mail under a special label just in case I want to delete it and reimport it later.

Second, GML is written in Python, which is really cool. Despite this, though, it uses TK instead of wxPython - what is Mark thinking?!

Well, let’s get back to the GMail specific stuff, before I lose those of you came here for a GMail review completely.

Organizing Your Mail

GMail offers great search capabilities, yes, but you’ll probably want to be able to sort your mail in some way. Traditionally, this has been done with Folders, which mirror the file system setup by allowing you to place emails in a heirarchical structure. GMail’s sorting method is done through Labels. Every message can be labelled multiple times, and then recalled easily by sorting based on the labels. It’s very cool, since there are many times when emails fit into one or more categories. As an example of what labels are like, think about this: A Ford Taurus is a car, but it is also a vehicle. If I search for “cars,” I want the Taurus to be found. But if I search for “vehicles,” I want to see the Cadillac Escalade and the Taurus. Just because the Taurus is a car doesn’t mean it stopped being a vehicle. Labels allow this multiple classification, while traditional folders do not.

It is possible to delete mail from GMail, but it is discouraged. “Archiving” is the preferred way of getting emails out of your inbox. Archived mail doesn’t display in the inbox, but can be labelled, and it always can be found by selecting the “All Mail” category. If you’d prefer to delete messages, you can move them to the Trash (More Actions -> Move to Trash), which is emptied automatically every 30 days, or you can manually empty it if you’d prefer.


As is to be expected, GMail’s search functionality is very good. It’s also fast, especially when compared to Outlook’s horribly slow search function. Searching email is pretty easy, though I wish the “Search the Web” wasn’t so close to the Search Mail button. If you prefer to further customize and refine your search, simply expand the search options box and customize away.

Filters and Spam

If you want to filter incoming mail automatically, GMail can do it. It’s a pretty standard filtering system that allows you to label email based on content, sender, or other information. Filters are especially useful for mailing list subscribers. You can choose to have email automatically archived after it is filtered, or you can choose to have it kept in your inbox. Each Label on the left shows how many unread emails are contained in it, so you can quickly tell if a new filtered email arrived even if you choose to have it automatically archived. (A note on the “archive” term. I understand what Google is trying to imply, but I think the archive term is misleading. When I think archive, I think, “Saved somewhere, but a pain to get to.” In GMail this simply isn’t the case. Archived email is as fast to access and find as other mail, it simply doesn’t sit in your inbox any more.) One really nice thing about the filter is that it lets you “run” it on the email already in your account so that you can make sure the parameters you’ve set in the filter are going to work properly.

GMail also includes an always-on automatic spam filter. It seems to do a pretty good job, though it is certainly wrong every once in awhile. It has made a lot more mistakes with the mail I have been importing from Outlook than with my new mail. I am not sure why that is. It is easy to classify mail as spam and vice-versa by selecting messages and clicking the appropriate button (see the screenshot). I am not sure if these classification changes you make are stored somewhere or affect the spam filter in any way. I’d like to think that it does, and if GMail’s using a Bayesian filter, it’s likely. I’m sure they probably have a database of known spam senders and use that in conjunction with Bayesian filters. That’s all just speculation of course. The bottom line is, it works pretty well.

Suggestions

GMail is currently in beta, and considering that, it’s in pretty good shape. There are several things I’d like to see in the “final release,” so to speak. Some of them I’ve already mentioned, but I’ll include them here just so this list is more comprehensive.

Spam Count Display (Now supported in GMail!)

Currently GMail doesn’t display the number of spam messages in the spam box like it does for the Inbox and Labels, even if the Spam box contains new messages. I like to filter through my spam manually just to be sure there’s nothing there that got misclassified, and I’d like to be able to tell if there are any new messages there without opening the spam section.

Accurate Message Count

Currently GMail displays the total number of conversations in a box, not the total number of discreet messages. I’d like both, or at least a place where I can toggle it on or off. Since I’ve been importing a lot of email, I’d like to know how many messages I’ve got, not conversations. I think this would be trivial to include, and would be very useful.

Conversations Toggle

I’m not sure if this would be too difficult to do, but I would like conversation mode to be toggle-able. There are some types of email that it is simply better to have messages as discreet items. It’d be nice if this could be toggled based on labels, so some labels would have conversations and others wouldn’t, but I’d settle for a global toggle if I had to.

Name Display

I mentioned this earlier, but I’d like conversations displayed with full names, and I’d like emails without the name field filled in displayed as “address@domain.com”, not just “address.” I’ve put an edited screenshot to the left.

Official Message Import Method

Mark’s GML is a great solution, but because it forwards mail using SMTP, the timestamps are all messed up. I’d like to see an official import mechanism for GMail that solves this problem and might work a little faster. I think allowing people to get their old mail in GMail will convert a lot more people to using it full time as I plan to. It doesn’t have to support PST files (in fact, I’d rather it didn’t), but MBOX support would probably be the best place to start. I think that the server load might be pretty high when such a service starts, as hundreds of people will be trying to upload hundreds of gigs of email. So it might be best to have a sign-up system of some sort, where you provide users with a window of time that they can upload email. Basically, users would need to set up an appointment, sort of like setting up time on a server farm. I’d gladly do that, especially if it meant I would get faster upload service.

Simpler Label Removal (Added June 12, 2004) (Now supported in GMail!)

As it is right now, you can only remove labels from conversations by opening up the label group and selecting messages within that context. I’d like there to be a box that is basically the same as the “Add Label…” box, but removes labels instead. Whenever messages are selected, no matter what the context, that box gets populated with the labels that currently apply to the selected messages, and by selecting a label from that box, the label is removed. It might make more sense to do a different GUI design for this functionality, rather than having two separate boxes, but there just has to be a simpler way to remove labels - especially since I often mislabel emails and need to fix my own mistakes.

Mailing List Delivery Options (Added September 22, 2004)

While I am very glad to see some of my earlier suggestions added (see above), there is one absolutely horrendous “feature” of GMail that I just noticed recently that is driving me bonkers. Luckily, I did find out that this is expected GMail behavior, and I am not just being dumb. The problem is this: When I send a message to a mailing list, my mailing list processor (MailMan, for the record), modifies the subject and then sends a copy of the email on. This subject modification is very useful for automatic sorting of mailing list mail. Also, MailMan (and other mailing list managers, I’m sure) have an option for every list subscriber that allows them to decide whether they want to receive a copy of the emails they post to the list or not. I always leave this option on, for several reasons. One, I want all mail from a list in one folder (or in GMail’s case, under one label). Manually moving my emails that I sent into that folder/label is a pain. Second, I want to quickly search all email with [ipro305] in the subject quickly - that’s a fast way to only search for IPRO mailing list mail. Yes, GMail offers superb searching capabilities that would probably let me get around this, but frankly, I just want to do it my way. The version of the emails that GMail saves (in my Sent Mail label) do not have that subject modification. Arggggghhhhh!

Finally, this breaks one of my major rules of email - never ever ever deny a message without telling the user. MailMan is sending out the copies of my email back to my account (I verified this) - GMail simply doesn’t put them in my box - anywhere. Apparently they’re gone, because it is assumed that the copy saved in my Sent Mail label is enough. I don’t like server-side spam filters for the same reason (if GMail automatically deleted mail it classified as spam I’d be incredibly annoyed - sorting it and then letting me make adjustments is OK though). If my account receives an email, it should be put in my account somewhere, no exceptions. Here’s hoping this gets changed or can be disabled on a per-user basis at the very least.

One Caveat

In case you haven’t heard, GMail is ad-supported. This isn’t all that surprising, considering most free webmail services are ad-supported. GMail is much more discreet than other webmail providers, though. See the screenshot to the right for an example of GMail ads. These ads are displayed just to the right of the email contents, and are in relatively small font, as you can see. GMail’s ads are also targeted based on the content of the email. This means, of course, that the contents of the email is scanned automatically and ads are chosen based on the content of them email. The example ads to the right were displayed next to an email regarding Biblical scripture to be read at a wedding.

Some people have expressed concern about the privacy of their email, especially since GMail scans it. I guess I sort of understand where they’re coming from, but people need to realize that email is a very insecure medium anyway, and that sensitive or private matters shouldn’t be handled through email. I believe Google when they say they’re not seeing this info and that it’s all automatically done by their system. I also trust them to keep their system secure so nothing is compromised. Google has some very talented, intelligent people working for them, and they’ve given me no reason to doubt them thus far. If you’re interested in what the link “About these links” in the screen shot says, go to http://gmail.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=6603 and see for yourself what Google says about the ads and their commitment to privacy and taste.

Final Thoughts

GMail is an awesome webmail system, even though it is still in beta. Even without the features I requested above, it is still a very useable, very comprehensive system. I am looking forward to continuing to use it for as long as I can, and I hope to be able to completely switch over to it in the near future.

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