An unofficial blog that watches Google's attempts to move your operating system online since 2005. Not affiliated with Google.

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February 9, 2007

Gmail's Philosophy Today

Google approach to mail, Gmail, was launched in April 1st 2004 as an invitation-only system. People initially thought Gmail was Google's Aprill Fools Day joke, but it turned out that Gmail was real.

What set Gmail apart?
  • Don't throw anything away
    Gmail had a storage size of 1 GB, 250 times bigger than Yahoo Mail's storage. Google thought people won't need to delete messages anymore, so Gmail didn't include a Delete button. But users really wanted to delete unnecessary messages, so Google had to add add the Delete button (January 2006).

  • Search, don't sort
    A such a big storage required a good search engine. Google indexed the full text of the messages, so you can search it throughly. There's also an advanced search that allows you to search for a certain sender or a time interval. But many users want a way to sort messages: for example, it would be nice to sort the messages by size or by sender.

  • Keep it all in context
    Google thought it would be nice to display all the replies to a message in a thread, like in a message board. Gmail does that by looking at the subject, so if someone changes the subject, the reply is not included in the thread. While many users agree it's a better way to handle an email exchange as a conversation, there are people who think each message should treated independently.

  • No pop-up ads. No untargeted banners
    Gmail shows text ads related to the current message. In 2004, when Gmail was launched, uninformed people spreaded the idea that Gmail breaks users' privacy by scanning the full text of messages to display ads. As Tim O'Reilly reported, "a number of organizations have asked Google to voluntarily suspend the service. One California legislator has gone so far as to say she plans to introduce a bill to ban it." As people got invitations to Gmail, they realized Google's system is better: mail scanning is automated and Gmail displays unobtrusive and sometimes even useful ads.

  • Labels, not folders
    Instead of storing message in separate folders, you can attach one or more labels that describe its content. Filters help you do that automatically. But there are many people that want folders: that's why Yahoo Mail and Windows Live (Hot)mail chose to stick with folders.

Gmail's philosophy was to remove as many constraints as possible and to have a flexible way to organize your mail. But when you try to be free of constraints, you impose a new rule and users should abide by it. People will always want to delete their messages, to see the first message received from aunt Lilly, to move it to a specific container like they do with their files (even if you can do this in Gmail by labeling a message and then archiving it). Messages from Gmail's Group confirm that:

"If I could sort by sender, then it would be much easier to find all of the emails from a certain group, individual, mailing list, company. Searching is great, it has tons of usefulness, but it does NOT replace sorting. It can be more cumbersome in many instances, no matter how well you refine it."

"I understand that some of the developers of Gmail feel that conversations are fundamental to the Gmail experience. But by not offering the option to disable it, you really are forcing many of your users to interact with their email in a way that they would prefer not to. Where is the choice? Of course I can set up my account to pop all of the mail to Outlook Express or some variant. But that removes me from the otherwise excellent Gmail experience, which I certainly do not want to do."

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