July 25, 2004

Gmail and the eccentric/incorrigible user  

Even though these days everybody and their uncle has a Gmail account, I thought it might be fun to post some observations re the service. I'm going to set aside all this business about privacy, the whole argument over which seems a little stale at this point, primarily since i'm not concerned about it in the least, and because I've hardly noticed the ad "feature".

For the most part, my experience has been good, and I can safely say that it's the best and even most reliable (and even with the occasional service interruptions easily forgiven in a public beta) free email service I've ever used. The application is my favorite yet for email, apart from Pine, which will always have a place in my heart, and which in any case is far superior to anything since developed, assuming you have a fast enough connxn.

But, I have several criticisms of the Gmail interface, most of which point back to the fact that it was developed (I assume) by a particular kind of user. The biggest omission, in my view, is the lack of a postpone feature, which means you can't write half a message and come back later. For me, this is a pretty major problem, since I usually have 30 some odd message wandering around waiting to be sent, edited, or otherwise relookedat. I don't know if this was felt to be a superfluous feature or was supposed to deter people who would use their Gmail account primarily for storage (which isn't a bad idea...), but it's led me to some inconventient circumnavigations, including frequent messages to myself. It may also have been viewed as an inefficiency in email use by those designing the application. Have these people never written a long email and wanted to think about it over night before hitting send?

Another dropped feature that irks me is the inability (or hidden ability) to edit subject lines when returning messages. Changing subject lines may also have been viewed as an inefficiency (and a problem for conversation grouping, I'll get to which in a sec), but for users who play games with this feature of the email paradigm (let's call them formal innovators), this is a real drag.

The conversation feature, which for the most part I think is a successful innovation, has a few practical flaws that might be addressed. The biggest problem is that it doesn't allow you to see branches well, so responses to mass emails are hard to manage. I recently sent out a recruting email for work, and it would be nice if I could isolate conversations with individual respondants as new conversations. This problem cuts to the heart of how conversations are managed by the application -- subject lines seem to be the exclusive determiner of how conversations are grouped, which means if you send two emails with the same subject line, they may be grouped together, even if the subject is something generic like "hello". Beware, ye writers of uncreative subject lines.

Finally, I wish it were possible to customize which fields appear when you compose a new message or begin a response. The simple ability to customize what comes up when you hit compose or reply would would make the subject line more accessible for editing, which might help solve the issues with conversation branching (although only manually, and only indirectly).

MORE: I forgot to mention the feature that got me thinking about writing this post in the first place! Gmail is NOT backwards compatible with some of the ancient browsers you run into when you're galloping the globe, which means that for instance on my trip to Costa Rica last month, it was actually somewhat difficult to find computers that would run it. This problem is exacerbated by Gmail's resource intensivity at loadup, which is just too much for some machines -- although to be fair, the load time for other free email services can be extremely frustrating too. At any rate, I have a friend who just informed everyone he was switching his primary to Gmail (the account I gave him), right before he left for Argentina. I hope he's able to access it without too much hassle.

Sweth  {July 26, 2004}

You clearly want to be using Mutt. It's everything that PINE was, only more so, plus every feature that GMail "innovated", only more so (including virtual views of folders (so you can create limit your view to only those messages involving specific people)). The only thing that it doesn't have is a webmail interface, but if you like PINE then that shouldn't be a deterrent.

paul  {July 26, 2004}

looks like a sweet program, I may try installing it on my uchicago account, although I'm not holding my breath that I even have permission to make this kind of installation. I seriously doubt I'll end up using Mutt though, for the same reason I can't really use PINE anymore: no reliable access to a unix machine...

Haggai  {July 26, 2004}

If you still have access to the UChicago account, why do you need a UNIX machine? I'm not really using my UMich account anymore, but I'm still checking it to see if any important messages come through, and I can just telnet and use Pine.

paul  {July 26, 2004}

I could use my uchicago account that way, but I'm not comfortable having that as a primary account when I'm not enrolled (which means they could at any moment incapacitate my account). Also, U of C doesn't allow telnet anymore for some security reasons, and I have yet to find an SSH client I like.

Haggai  {July 26, 2004}

I use putty for SSH, which works OK. The disconnect-at-any-moment thing was certainly one reason I switched, along with growing spam troubles.

paul  {July 27, 2004}

Also uchicago's email is extremely unreliable and slow. Gmail, I'm finding out, has a lot of spots of downtime, but it's still better than my university account on that count...

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