Red Letter Day

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


So for the past month, I have been trying an experiment of using Gmail exclusively for my email. I still receive messages sent to my and email addresses, but those mailboxes are accessed via Gmail. There are several advantages to using Gmail and a few disadvantages, but so far I am liking it and plan to keep the experiment going for a while longer. Ironically, the longer I use it, the worse Gmail's one huge disadvantage becomes (see below).

So what are the main "cool things" about Gmail?

1. Instant email access everywhere. I can instantly get to my email, both to read and reply, from almost anywhere; home, work, my cell phone, public computers, any place with an internet connection. No more do I have to Timbuktu home to check personal email, or have to check several different web sites to view email. It's all in one place. For the Macs I regularly use, I have downloaded Gmail notifier, which will alert me whenever a message arrives. Actually using Gmail is pretty good. It is still a web browser, but is flexible and interactive enough for most tasks that I have not really noticed the shortcomings of the web application versus a traditional email client, yet.

2. Conversations and tagging. Both of these are unique to Gmail and both take getting used to. Each helps tame the massive mess that emails can turn into. Conversations essentially collapses all emails in a single subject into one "line" in your email box. For example, a messy four-way conversation, sprawled out over a week between my friends and I about getting together for a concert shows up as a neat single line in Gmail, and when I read it, the entire conversations expands to show who said what when. It is essentially threading done very well. Tagging is another way Gmail lets you organize things; it works like folders in traditional email, but you can assign multiple tags to a message, so essentially you can place messages in multiple "folders" at once. It does take time to get used to Gmails non-use of traditional folders as a method of filing. To effectively use Gmail, you need to tag all messages you plan to keep (this can be automated) then "archive" them. AFter this becomes second nature, it really works well.

3. Effective spam filtering. Perhaps because of the huge corpus of spam Gmail users get and mark, Gmail's spam catching seems very effective, catching about 99% of all my spam. I get about 400 messages a day of spam, so that means 4 will get through per day on average, which is not bad, although like most automated systems, Gmail sometimes allows incredibly obvious spam messages to get through.

There are a few weaknesses in Gmail that you might want to keep in mind if you want to follow my experiment and try it yourself. Obviously, you have to trust Google to store your personal email. I am not to worried about this; any more then I worry about online banking or online shopping, but if it bothers you, then Gmail is probably not for you. There's also the targeted ads that show up when you read mail. Perhaps I am so jaded and used to advertising that I don't even notice.

As far as functional weaknesses, there are two major ones I have found. The first is that Gmail is a one-way process. You can import old mail into Gmail, but there is almost no way to effectively export mail out of Gmail back to your desktop (beyond kludges like forwarding all the mail to an external account). I like having a local backup of all my mail. The only way around this I have found is to turn on Gmail's own POP and use a local mail client to suck down all of your Gmail messages periodically. This sucks because it doesn't preserve any of your Gmail organization such as sent items, labels, and so forth. Gmail needs to provide an easy way to download all mail via a simple export command.

The second functional weakness is filters. Gmail allows for basic filtering to be set up, but it is rudimentary at best, allowing filtering based on only a couple criteria. You cannot build compound filters, or any kind of routing beyond the basic "if it came from Mom, label it family" kind of thing. This itself is probably a deal-killer for anyone who uses email in a hard-core, super-organized way, as opposed to people like me, who use email for basic correspondence. Gmail really needs to make filtering better, allowing the user to filter based on any header, and string filters together to make more complex recipes. Gmail should also allow the tagging and filtering of outbound mail.

In spite of these problems, I am liking Gmail for the light use that is my email, and I will keep using it at least in the foreseeable future. I just hope they continue to make improvements in the product and don't just rest on their laurels.



  • Probably a silly question, but how does the search work? Can you search your entire email archive for a link sent years ago?

    By Blogger mattjustmull, At 11:47 AM  

  • Yeah, it works basically like Google itself does.

    By Blogger Mike, At 1:32 PM  

  • I think Gmail is the best in free email service providers such as Yahoo, Hotmail and so on. Grouping the conversation between the same ID's is its one of the best feature. Likely you mentioned, I too expecting some option to download all the mails to desktop.
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    By Anonymous Mark, At 8:04 AM  

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