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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."


  1. You can still sort by sender/etc... filters such as from:/to:{address/name}, before:/after:(date in YY/MM/DD), and others which I can't recall. Just takes a bit of digging, which, I agree, it shouldn't.

  2. Sender sorting : if it's an important sender it should be in your contacts, so then you can sort by contacts. If it's not, a basic search should be fine.

    I think searching is much more efficient than sorting. Sorting needs that you remember who sent you what.

  3. This is a classic example of a minority of power users demanding more features that will complicate a product. The hard part of being a big company designing a product that is used by more than 50 million people is to be able to resist these sorts of feature requests that will only benefit a bare minority of people and complicate the experience for the majority.

    The real solution is something like greasemonkey or Firefox's add-ins system: the ability to appease these users whilst not affecting the defaults and not inserting extra, complicating options in the preferences menu that most users don't need anyways.

  4. Joshua Prowse - I totally agree with you, gMail MUST be left simple

  5. I totally agree that disabling, adding, modifying of conversations should be implemented.

  6. Gotta agree with you too Joshua, tried to think of a message to put but it would only raise the same point.

  7. I second Danny (Joshua).

  8. Gmail is quite awesome. The tags are the equivalent of folders, the searching is more efficient than sorting. Sometimes customers will shackle a company to an inferior design approach, the customer being a relative neophyte to the architectural decisions. The basic approaches taken with gmail are full winners. Refinements and additional capabilities along the existing architectural lines will make it better. In some cases users will want an extra intermediate layer of cruft - this limits what they can expect out of information technologies, but we are all humans after all, the programs shouldn't run us!

  9. Even on the HTML view there is still no "Delete" button!

  10. Complicate the product? We're talking about sorting by column. That's not complicated. Every other freaking piece of software on the planet does this. Even my mom understands the concept.

    This is just another example of Google's arrogance. They introduce a lot of really cool and innovative technologies, but then they leave them half baked. They do not "finish the drill".

    This is why I am so reluctant to commit myself to Google. I am not confident that they will continually improve their products.

    Say what you will about Microsoft, but this is why Microsoft's desktop software always seems so beautiful. Remember who pays the bills. Microsoft's customers are the actual users.

    Microsoft had to make Office 2007 compelling, otherwise everyone would have just continued to stick with Office 2000.

    Google's customers are the guys buying ads. Elegant software is not what Google does. Google sells ads.

    I still think that Google is cool, but they frustrate the heck out of me sometimes with their attitude.

  11. The inability to sort by Date, Subject, To, From, and so on is a serious shortcoming in an email app, be it local or remote. One needs the convenience of sorting by sender or subject so that, for example, one can quickly delete whole categories of messages before archiving those worth keeping. As things stand, I have about 400 emails in my Gmail inbox since the last time I cleaned it up (last week). Two-thirds I'd like gone. To accomplish that I'll again have to wade through the entire pile, checking or unchecking one by one, or search on selected Froms or Subjects repeatedly. A time-wasting pain either way.

  12. Yay vote for sort by sender. I want to be able to go down thru my messages (most of which i've fogotten) and assess my latest situation with each contact individually. I dont want to dig around in my contacts trying to figure out who sent me mail recently. Get out of my face if u think sorting is a feature that shouldn't at least be an option. Thats absurd.

  13. Another vote for sort by sender. Alternatively, some sort of report which breaks down messages by source over some time period.

    I get a lot of email, from different sources, and I'd like to be able to tell when company X has crossed the line from a few reminders into repetitive spamming.

    albucian said that searching is more efficient than sorting, and this is true - when you know what you're looking for. Searching is great for recovery, but abysmal at discovery.

    Sorting is much better at discovery, because it builds recognizable patterns. Sorting can tell you that you are getting quite a few emails from a company, searching requires that you already know that.

  14. I need the choice. Conversations are nice, but since a conversation may go of topic, I want the ability to sort and thus search a message.
    Tow major drawbacks for the conversation-dogma:

    No sequential view of messages for a topic (read: label).

    When a conversation goes off topic I'm forced to apply a new label to the entire conversation instead of the track starting with a particular message.

    So I started using gmail as tunnel and pop my messages (which defeats the adverts Google is paid for)

  15. As denis said, you can do some fancy searches. After poking around, I found the "Advanced Search" help information here:
    Google Advanced Search

  16. To sort or not to sort (how to sort, etc.) - that is one of the hot topics here. The real issue is simply the fact that you just cannot please all of the people all of the time.

    And why must we read another story of sour grapes because a company is successful and is making money. I say "good for you". I'm glad Google is making money. That is why they call it business. Don't we want the Internet companies whose products we use to be successful? If they weren't then I don't have to tell you where we would all be....grab your remotes's time for another episode of "If Only We Had the Internet".

    Personally, I think gMail is great and I use Google so often that I have it set as one of my home pages (I use Firefox).

  17. The lack of ability to sort by name/size/etc frustrates me.

    I wish Google with listen.


  18. Hey u can easily sort messages in gmail. Connect outlook to gmail using IMAP. Please not IMAP and do not connect using POP. U ccan sort messages in Outlook by anything u want. Ex - U can sort messages in Outlook based on size and delete the big ones. They get automatically deleted from your inbox.

  19. I have had Gmail for 2 years now, the only reason I do not use it "I CANNOT SORT BY SENDER" - my email I should be able to do what I please with it, There needs to BIG DAMN BUTTON ON THE FRONT WHICH SAYS SORT BY SENDER...

  20. Here's another vote for sorting by sender. After all, Gmail automatically sorts by date; why not the "sender" parameter? Sure I could sit all day and click on each of my contacts in my Contacts list, seeing everything they sent me but that is absurd. Like others have said on here, I get a lot of emails from the same entities but they are not in my Contacts list (and I don't want them there) so they're not searchable that way. I need to sort by sender because that gives me a broader view (which seems to be part of Google's philosophy) and I can send a consolidated reply to a sender addressing the various subjects they've emailed me about. Or delete more of their emails more quickly. And as for those who say I should just read and sort them through Outlook, Thunderbird or some other email program - what if I'm away from my home computer and want to do some sender sorting?

    As for "sour grapes," I don't see anybody complaining because Google is successful; we're simply providing feedback. Companies need to hear feedback from customers who want different things to determine how and if to adjust their product. Honestly, I don't understand why somebody would join a discussion about the frustrations in order to dismiss those frustrations. I have to seriously ponder the possibility that some of the Gmail apologists and advocates in this discussion work for or have an interest in (stock perhaps?) Google Inc.

  21. When doing weekly, monthly or yearly clean ups of email inboxes, SORTING is an *invaluable* tool. I am faced with that task right now. My 2 yahoo accounts, no problem,easy peasy. My Gmail account...a total mess! And going to take me much much longer. As for searching vs. sorting, they are NOT even CLOSE to being the same thing! I´m sure I have emails from people/orgs I don´t even know about, let alone knowing to search for them. Which is why I would like to delete them all in one fell swoop. Give customers more flexibility: ADD SORTING TO THE OPTIONS!!!!

  22. yea wtf? Outlook does it by pressing "sender"
    I wouldn't think it'd be that hard to do.

  23. I *want* to use gmail as my primary tool for email, but the lack of sorting by sender makes it a non-starter. Although the spam filter seems good, it still produces false positives. Since I have to manually scroll through all the spam (I get hundreds a day), sorting by sender in the spam filter is a lifesaver.

    All of the goofy suggestions for searching for a sender or adding things to address books won't work. And all of you "keep it simple" tyrants really get me - so we can have "stars" and filters and colors and labels and chat, but Whoa Nelly! sorting is going too far! It's a core feature in any application that has columns!

  24. me, I want to sort by subject - you can't set up useful spam filters without being able to tell what subjects are used over and over, which would be a heck of a lot easier if I could order them alphabetically. Using the search feature I'm stuck with doing it a word at a time, an email at a time. This isn't a feature; this is a bug.

  25. Well I agree, it's sorely missing, but you can accomplish sorting in a roundabout way. You access Gmail using IMAP in Outlook and you can sort by anything (as expected). I use this for mass deletes as someone indicated in their response above. However, it still is a big shortcoming of the web interface.

  26. I don't understand why it has to be a contest between searching and sorting. They are NOT substitutes. Searching will never replace sorting. There is no reason we can't have both.

  27. People need to differentiate the difference between filtering (aka: searching) and sorting, they are two different actions with different purposes. Even if they don't add sort columns, at least add a "sort:sender" advanced search option for the power users. It's so frustrating finding mass groups of emails that I can delete.

  28. It is a very common, understandable feature, and if the most poplular mail programs use it, why not?

  29. I've been using Outlook for 10 years, and for whatever reason, I got used to sorting my email by date with the newest messages at the bottom. This way, the oldest messages are always at the top. It keeps me aware of stuff I haven't answered in a while.

    Google sorts with the newest at the top, and it drives me crazy. It's unbelievable that something so simple as sorting by date is missing. I don't want to search by date -- I just want my default view to be the one I'm used to.

  30. This is crazy. Of course Gmail should have a sort by sender option. If you don't need the feature, don't use it. This is the only thing that makes gmail horrible for me.. the inability to sort by column. That seems simple enough for a company like Google to manage.

  31. I'm also horrible missing SORTING BY COLUMNS in my gmail account. Sometimes I have up to 5000 messages in Spam box and between them there are about 2 or 3 required and quite important messages, which are possibble to be found by chance or about one hour of stupid work checking all the unsorted subjects.

    Please, make a column sorting for us and we will praise the Gmail everywhere! :o)

  32. The folks who say the search and label features somehow replace sorting are so absurd that it goes beyond a vested interest, i.e. owning stock. It's almost like their entire being is invested in the product or company. What is it with technoheads, whether they be Apple freaks or Google freaks? Is this some kind of religion, or is it a piece of goddamn software we use, supposedly, to make life easier? If you want religion go to church. Leave it out of a discussion on how to improve an e-mail system. WEIRD!!!

  33. Searching is more efficient than sorting? How can you search on stuff when you don't know what to search for? How does efficiency work in this case? For example, when you want to remove all unwanted threads in gmail but don't know what to search for. In Outlook you just sort by subject or "from address" and delete as you go. In gmail, there is no sort! Sorting does not complicate things, it simplifies things. I use it for its other features. If my email address wasn't so widely known by friends, family and associates, I would switch to Yahoo. This is exactly what Derek is talking about.

  34. To me this a clear case of gmail being over-engineered by software designers who couldn't find a better way to spend their time. The motivation is simple, to keep themselves being employed.

    Put yourself in the shoes of those engineers/analysts for gmail: the program is already working fine, but what should we do for the next quarter to justify being employed here? the more honest answer would be: the product is already good enough and should be moved into maintenance mode, with reduced staff headcounts, maybe 2/3 of the existing staff must find other areas of work or leave the company. Of course this choice is not desirable for them for many obvious reasons. So they made the "natural" decison to keep "improving" it by throwing in new features.

    But are their managers so stupid as not to be able to see thru this? No, but their managers need to justify being employed as well, so why not play along?

  35. log in to your gmail account, go to:

    click on "suggest" next to Sort messages by size, date, sender, etc.

    if they receive enough suggestions, they will probably implement it.

  36. Dumb Gmail - cant even sort by senders. Have to first dig through and find a sender and find email from them. Just a dumb interface.

  37. Sort by sender label:All
    It is pretty easy.

  38. I just read what Anonymous wrote on March 8, 2007 5:59 AM and I'm STILL LMAO!! The WHOLE post is stupid but the real belly buster was "this is why Microsoft's desktop software always seems so beautiful." Still cracking up!


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