Technology

The day I broke Gmail

Like many other geeks, I’ve gotten a Gmail account but unlike most people, it took me less than 48 hours to render unoperational (and this time, it’s not a joke).

First of all, let me say that while it is an interesting package, it is not without flaws. For starters, the lack of indicator when the Spam folder and/or trash have stuff in them is a bit disturbing. Sure, it’s not that much of an issue when you have a gigabyte of space but, for those of us who are particularly clean when it comes to online operations (I generally try to keep my virtual trash relatively empty), it’s a bother.

On the spam blocking end, Gmail does an OK job but is nowhere near as good as simply using Squirrelmail with SpamAssassin, or using the spamcop black-list. On the good side of this is the fact that, in the course of a day of use (about 600 messages, most of them spam), Gmail had no false positives in terms of tagging things as spam. On the bad side, it failed to tag hundreds of messages as spam. I’m assuming that Gmail has a learning curve, like other email packages, so I wouldn’t fault it yet on this but, looking at other packages, it does not pass the test in terms of being an efficient spam-blocker.

The concept of conversations is an interesting one and I can easily see how this kind of interface paradigm represents the next step in the evolution of email interfaces. It is clean, simple, and adds tremendous value, especially when tracking discussions across mailing lists. Combined with labeling, it could become a good way to manage mail.

Speaking of labeling, I was disappointed to see that every non-spam email lands in the inbox. If I set a label and/or rule against a piece of email, I would like to see that view move to a different view/folder than my inbox. Once again, under the edict of keeping things simple and clean, I generally prefer to have a relatively uncluttered inbox, with emails being filtered left and right into different folders/views.

Another thing that annoyed me with the interface was its heavy reliance on JavaScript. There should be a Gmail Light version which does not require those tricks. This was most painful when I tried to access Gmail via my Treo 600. Since I don’t always sit in front of a full fledged PC, I can’t always use JavaScript and this means that, until Gmail offers either a way to access mail via pop3/imap or a non-JavaScript browser, my Gmail account will not be the primary one. The other problem with this is that certain browsers, like the popular Safari browser, are not supported. That’s a problem for those of us that do not believe in staying with one platform and/or browser. I tend to use Mozilla when on a PC (kudos to the Gmail team for their support of that browser), Safari on the mac, and Blazer on the Treo and in this day and age, I expect web sites to work on all three.

All and all, Gmail is an interesting email package but I expected more. Maybe it was the hype; maybe it was because it’s a Google product. Either way, I’ll be following its progress over time.

moving forward, I’d like to see the Gmail team develop an API (using SOAP or XML-RPC) so a developer community could start adding features or building on top of Gmail. It seems that this is another area that Google should investigate.

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