A Review of Google Mail (aka gmail)

Thanks to a friend I was recently invited to take part in the closed beta of Google Mail (aka gmail). As soon as I logged in the first thing I noticed was that Google’s email had a simplistic interface, which I like. I had been hearing lots of things around the Internet about how Gmail didn’t have traditional folders and how it had keyboard shortcuts, etc. This all turned out to be true. The UI of Gmail is drastically different than anything I’ve ever used for email before. It’s foreign to me and I’m not sure I really like it. At any rate, here are a few screenshots and some explanation as to what is going on.

GMail INBOX

Gmail introduces the notion of “Conversations”, which are groupings of messages that were replies to each other. There are rules in the RFC that allow for such relationships to be built, but are completely dependent on whether the MUA replying uses the correct headers (In-Reply-To if I recall correctly). I can only assume Google uses these headers to relate messages into conversations. In this screenshot you can see numbers next to names – those are the numbers of messages in that conversation. Many who have used the famous MUA mutt will think this is simple threading, but it’s not. Google takes it a step further and lays out your conversation in reverse chronological order with all of your messages inline too. This is there response to removing the traditional Sent folder – simply put your replies right under the messages you replied to. Gmail ConversationI’m not completely used to the notion of conversations. It’s a highbred of threading and message boards that I’m not sure I really like yet. I can see it becomeing difficult to navigate, but with a Google indexed INBOX searching should quickly take care of that.

The other thing Gmail introduces is the notion of Labels. Labels are very much like folders, but messages aren’t moved into these psuedo folders. That’s one of the strange things about Gmail – everything stays right in your INBOX unless you move it to your Trash or Spam folders. As you can see in the first screenshot I have a few things labeled “JCS Solutions”, etc. that are sitting right in my INBOX.

Labels are cool, but when combined with Filters they are extremely cool. These are simple procmail type rules that allow you to add labels to¬†email that match certain criteria (ie. subject has [PEAR-DEV] in it). This allows you to automagically apply the Label “mom” to email coming from your mother. You then have a list of Labels in the lower left hand side of the screen that show you how many new messages for each Label you have in your INBOX. You can then click that and view it as if it was a folder. The combination of Labels and Filters are VERY much like the auto-updating playlists found in iTunes, which I find to be extremely cool.

The two other cool features in Gmail involve crazy ass amounts of JavaScript. The first are keyboard shortcuts, which follow closely mutt’s keyboard shortcuts. This makes browsing a much quicker process. The second is type-ahead searching of people’s name in your INBOX. It works just like Outlook where if you type in a part of an email address it pops up a list of email addresses that match the text you have typed in so far.

Gmail is still beta though. I expect them to polish the interface quite a bit before they make it publicly available for consumption by all. For starters you can’t define a signature, which I found odd. Also, it appears that if you receive a message and then create a filter based on it Gmail does not apply the filter to the message once received. In other words labels and filters are applied as the message is received. My other worry is how I could backup or archive my own email. My only hope is that this either becomes a paid service or publicly available to download your email as an mbox file.

And, yes, I have 1000MB (1GB) of space available.

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