One Month With Gmail Hosted Email

I've been using the gmail interface as my main email client for about a month now, so I thought I'd share my experiences.

First, why I'm using Gmail now. I've used BTCarver at LISNews as my primary email address for about 7 years now, and I really didn't want to change addresses, but I did want to change email servers. Until recently LISHost was two servers, one ran LISNews (and my email) and a few other sites, the other server ran all the other LIShosted sites. Dealing with two servers can be overwhelming, so I decided to cut costs and my work load, and dump the LISNews server. While this was a big time/money saver, it meant my primary method of contact (email) with all 100+ LISHostees was on the same server. So this meant any trouble with the LISHost server would mean I'd be unable to communicate with anyone! This was a bad idea, and I quickly started searching for a new email host for my LISNews (I also didn't want to put LISNews email on the same server LISNews uses currently, but that's another story) email accounts.

Coincidentally at about the same time, I got an invite from Google to help beta test Google Hosted email. I could outsource my email to Google, and best of all, it was free! Free if you don't count the ads served up with each and every email. This would mean a big change for me a couple different ways. I'd be moving to a primarily web based email system (though they do offer POP) and I'd have no control over my email server. For years I've happily used Outlook Express as my primary email client. I've switched back and for between POP and IMAP, but I've stuck with Outlook Express. It's easy to use, does everything I want it to, and has very few features that get in the way. Along the way I did try Thunderbird and found it to be super buggy and unacceptably unstable. So changing to gmail meant some big changes in my world of communications, and it turns out the hardest part was just going to be relearning email the Google way, "email as conversation."

It's been one month and overall I'm happy with what I've seen. I can't beat the price, and most of what they have to offer is good, though they have an approach to email I don't entirely agree with, I can't help but think they have a decent product. It's primary goal my be to server me more ads, I think I'll stick with it for the foreseeable future. Below is what I've found to be good and bad with gmail Hosted email from Google.

First, while it's great they think they've found a revolutionary new way to work with email, it makes little sense (to me) to not at least provide an option to use folders and NOT group things by subject. I can only assume this decision was made because it was too hard to program, or it uses too much space on the server. This labels thing may be great for some people, but it really doesn't work for me. It could be that I'm just not used to it, or it could be I use email differently than most people, or it could just be that it's a solution in search of a problem. So, here's what Google says:

"A conversation can have more than one label"
vs.
"You can only put a message in one folder"

I can't understand why this is a problem, and I'm a librarian who loves to put labels on things. I put labels on things for a living. I've never felt the need to put an email into more than one folder. An email is just that. It's a file that needs to be dropped into a folder so that I can handle all that email better. E.g. All my old logwatch emails go into the logwatch folder. All my web4lib messages go into the web4lib folder. All my sent items go into… well you get my point.

"A conversation can be in several locations (Inbox, All Mail, Sent Mail, etc.) at once, making it easier to find later"
vs.
"You have to remember where you filed a message to retrieve it"

I've never ever found this to be a problem. I have 29 folders in my work email account, and 37 at home and I've never once had a problem remembering where to search, and even if I did, I can just search all the folders at once.

"You can search conversations by label"
vs.
"You can't always do folder-specific searches"

I really don't understand where they're coming from on this one. What email program doesn't allow folder searches?

I guess the problem here is the Google programmers assume that email is conversation. While my email is sometimes conversational, it's not always a conversation. Actually, more often than not, it's not a conversion, but simply a file. Everyday I get 4 or 5 emails from the LISHost server, and another 4 from the LISNews code. These are not conversations, they are my projects telling me something. So is assuming that all email is conversation a mistake? I'm not sure.

Looking at my lists email account is a great example of where it doesn't work. There's no conversation there, just a bunch of posts to listservs. Some of the threads get grouped nicely, but many do not. No matter what I do to label those messages I am still left with a huge list of absolutely unrelated emails in one place. Nothing I can do with gmail changes that because they assume that this is somehow a conversation I am having with others. In order to view just emails that are from certain lists I have to browse by label, which is essentially just a folder. I can "star" a message ("Stars let you give messages a special status to make them easier to find") which leads me to believe they know having one folder sucks.

The worst part is emails are grouped by subject, which means any email with the same subject, no matter when or who it comes from, is now part of the same conversation. I get a TON of email with the same subject and Gmail clearly doesn't know how to handle it. Last week when LISHost suffered it's series of unfortunate events Gmail confused the hell out of me and caused to me to miss at least one email. Just last night when I was dealing with LISHost billing issues I ran across 2 emails buried within a group I completely missed. If anything drives me away from gmail, this is it. Grouping email by subject simply does not work for me.

Applying labels as a way of sorting messages seems backwards. It feels like it requires too much effort on my part. And when I do add a label, the check box doesn't go away, so I need to check, and then uncheck items. Plus I want to be able to look at one screen and sell ALL my email, I want to see that I have 30 new messages from web4lib, 2 from collib, 3 in my inbox, and 12 new support requests.

Overall it just feels like a solution in search of a problem. My email is normally not a conversation, and treating it as such confuses the helloutta me.

Some random things that I've had troubles with:

It's down a lot more than I'd expect from a product built by Google. I've noticed short but regular periods where I can't get my email.

They show ads on spam. I understand the logic behind putting ads everywhere possible, it's how they make money, but putting ads on spam messages seems wrong for some reason I can't really put into words.

I have to scroll all the way to the bottom of a message to hit reply.

The only option for my signature is "appended at the end of all outgoing messages" I chose to put my signature after what I write, which is often before the quoted text.

After I hit send, it just sits there and doesn't go back to the inbox.

I have 3 or 4 different signins @google.com that are all essentially the same thing, but they all seem to need different passwords and require different sign ins. I don't know if this is a security thing or not, but it seems to be redundant.

I can't delete just one email if it's part of a "conversation" here we go again with the assumption that I'm having a single cohesive conversation with one person again. And here's another reason why this analogy fails. If I delete anything it also disappears from my sent items. So I guess the "proper" way I can delete mail is to "archive" it. There doesn't seem to be a way to detach a message from a conversation. It's hard for me to get in the habit of archiving a mail rather than deleting it. It just doesn't make sense.

I don't have any control over how lists of messages are displayed. I can't add more fields, or change the date options.

I can't reorder all those things on the left side.

I can't change the subject of an email I reply to without clicking the edit subject link. I'm not sure why they want to make it hard to change the subject.

They leave the logo on the print screen.

The ads that do show up seem to be much less relevant than the ads I see on web sites. An email from my brother inlaw on web hosting showed me these:
"Contact Hyderabad Girls: Marry A Telugu Bride Or Groom Register Free! To Contact & Marrywww.BharatMatrimony.com"
"Free Indian Matrimonials: Find Hyderabad Girls Contact 600000+ Profiles, Join FreeJeevanSathi.com"

They're tracking my clicks. It looks like, at least part of the time, links from within the message body or redirects to some kind of tracking script.

It took me awhile to figure out which messages I've replied to by looking at my inbox.

The grouping of emails by subject just fails when I have multiple messages from multiple people with the same subject. It's very easy to loose one in the group and forget to reply to it. This happens to me every day.

It would be nice if I could build a rule based on the message I'm viewing while I'm viewing it "create rule based on this message" The rules are very powerful.

No "delete all" in spam box.

The login page needs an "onfocus" so I don't need to click on in the login box.

I've never overly impressed with the "web clips" I can't figure out how they decide what shows up in that space. It seems almost random.

Going from the email into the control panel requires me to sign in again. This time it seems un necessary because I'm also signed in with the same exact account. Security again? I'll take security over convenience any day.

It took me a little while to figure out why I kept accidentally moving message to spam, or deleting messages I didn't mean to delete. The delete button moves when I'm in the spam folder, it changes places and tricks me into clicking the wrong button. A little bit of bad UI design.

The email lists are weak at best. The only way to add recipients is via the browser, and you can only add addresses @ your domain. I can't imagine what can of worms they'd be opening by offering more though.

It would be great if I could see my email, email admin, reader, adsense, and google ads, book marks, and personalized Google home page all with one login. Is this really safe? I don't know.

Some random things I'm happy with:

It seems to keep my logged in damn near forever. I checked my email on the laptop 2 days ago, put it to sleep, and came back to the laptop and didn't need to sign back in.

The keyboard shortcuts are nice.

Showing snippets of messages is quite handy. It's interesting to see how some of the spam is formatted in the snippet vs how it looks in the message itself.

It's nice they offer forwarding and POP access.

I like the quick contacts and how they show up on the page. Overall the contact list in general is well put together.

Not surprisingly, the search options are quite nice.

There's a handy "report phishing" link hidden in the "more options" Also hidden in there is a "garbled" link that allows you to change the default encoding.

The rules page is very powerful.

Over all the control panel is clean and easy to use. There isn't many options, but I'm not sure that's a problem.

The interface seems to be exactly the same on IE and firefox. I can only assume this was not an easy task to accomplish with all the Ajax tricks they've got in there.

The chat interface is nice, especially nice that I can popup one of the windows, but when I went to look at another site it warned me the chat window would be closed, with no option to cancel.

The image attachment previews are really nice.

The spam filters they run seem to be more effective than spamassasin. I get about 100 messages caught per day, and so far there's been about 1 or 2 a day that sneak past. There was only one false positive I saw, and this was also marked falsely by spamassasin and Outlook. Don't ask why I got this same email at 3 different accounts.

Comments

Why not think of labels as folders?

Maybe it's because I've never used Outlook/Outlook Express, but I don't see why you can't just think of labels as being folders, if unique folders suit your style. Maybe (probably) I'm missing something here...

Most of my email is still at rlg.org, using Notes mail; it uses folders, but in fact a piece of mail can be added to more than one folder, so it's pretty similar to GMail's labels--but without the conversation feature, which I do find useful.

And I find that multiple labels are at least sometimes useful, just as multiple categories for WordPress posts are frequently useful and most nonfiction books get more than one LCSH subject. (If Notes didn't make it difficult to add email to more than one folder, I'd do it a *lot* more often; it would make life easier.)

I've been thinking about this more because I use folders--real, manila, 3-cut folders--to organize materials that I plan to use for Cites & Insights. And I'm finding more and more that I really want the same material to be inside two or three folders, since I'm not sure where I'll wind up using it. So, somehow, I'm losing the mindset of each communication having one and only one topic/label/folder.

But, as usual, different people have different organizing styles.

Re:Why not think of labels as folders?

You're right, labels can be used as folders, BUT, I need to put in effort to every message or I need to put effort into sorting things by label to control the cluttter, something that just happens naturually for me in regular email. I've just never felt the need to put something in more than one folder. I'll write some more to explain later.

Some Tips from a Fellow Gmail User

Individual messages from a conversation CAN be deleted without deleting the whole conversation. In the header of the single message, click on "More Options". Several options will appear including "Delete this message". This is also another place you can reply or forward a message without going to the bottom.

If you a label an item and archive it, it will no longer be in the main mailbox. The messages that act similar to a folder structure at that point.

Here is a hint that may work well for you and other people that get many message rom a single server or other source. You can automatically label, star, or archive items (i.e. remove them from the single inbox) by "Creating a filter". Works great for pre-sorting items that you do not need to handle on a regular basis.

I use Outlook at work. It would be nice to put some items in multiple folders. I have created some folders for whom I am helping and others for the topic. Some emails fall logically in both folders, rather than just one.

If you use Firefox, install CustomizeGoogle. It has an option to "remove ads" so you can use more of your screen for the actual email message.

The web clips are usually based on some word on your current screen. For example, I was in the Spam folder and get a Spam recipe. I was reading a message that contained the term "GPA" and got an advertisement for increasing my GPA.

All my google offerings are under a single login (email, reader, calendar, etc.). Maybe yours is different because of the email hosting that you are testing.

tracking and email

if you ever go back to running your own mail server, checkout mailscanner (and then mailwatch and then vispan).mailscanner has the capability to tap into free spam apps (such as spamassassin) and free antivirus (clamAV,etc). it'll also strip out tracking mechanisms embedded into emails, along with block phishing attempts etc.2 weeks ago it took me probably 2 days to get a machine setup from scratch with all of the above. but it's cut down on our email 'problems' big-time.have you heard how much google plans to eventually charge for their email hosting service?

Re:Why not think of labels as folders?

Blake

You can have gmail put a tag on every email from a certain source. For example you can create a filter that puts a web4lib tag on all the messages from web4lib. Then you can just click on the web4lib tag and you are looking at all those messages. Once you have set the filter you do not have to individually apply the tag to each email

Some comments and tips

Cool article! It brings up some interesting issues.First off, the article is titled "...Gmail Hosted Email". Are you referring to Gmail's new domain-hosted email, or a single user account? I only ask because I don't know if User Interface of the "hosted" version of Gmail works significantly differently from the single-user version. Because of that, some of my comments may or may not apply....

"What email program doesn't allow folder searches?"

Don't forget that with Gmail, we're dealing with a Web-based email client, not a deesktop client. Until recently, most Web-based email services were only basic offerings, and few offered any kind of search function. The good news is that recently, more and more are offering this feature.

"I can't delete just one email if it's part of a "conversation" here we go again with the assumption that I'm having a single cohesive conversation with one person again. And here's another reason why this analogy fails. If I delete anything it also disappears from my sent items. So I guess the "proper" way I can delete mail is to "archive" it. There doesn't seem to be a way to detach a message from a conversation. It's hard for me to get in the habit of archiving a mail rather than deleting it. It just doesn't make sense."

Click on the header of the message in the conversation you want to delete and click "Mode options", then click the "Delete this message" link.

"I have to scroll all the way to the bottom of a message to hit reply."

By all means, look into the keyboard shortcuts! While reading a message, simply pressing the "r" key will open a reply box! Check here for all the keyboard shortcuts: http://mail.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answe r=6594&query=keyboard&topic=0&type=f

"The only option for my signature is "appended at the end of all outgoing messages" I chose to put my signature after what I write, which is often before the quoted text."

Gotta agree with you on this one. I find this quite annoying.

"I can't reorder all those things on the left side."

It's not much, but you can move the Chat's Quick Contacts box to either above or below the Labels box in Settings > Chat.

"I can't change the subject of an email I reply to without clicking the edit subject link. I'm not sure why they want to make it hard to change the subject."

My speculation is to maintain the continuity of conversations?

"No "delete all" in spam box."

True. You have to click the "All" link then click Delete Forever. But don't forget that Gmail auto-deletes spam after about 30 days or so, even though you can accumulate some spam, it should never fill up your quota.

"The login page needs an "onfocus" so I don't need to click on in the login box."

Hmmm. What browser and OS are you using? It always focuses in Firefox and IE under WinXP Pro.Hope these help!-Jim Barrhttp://gmailtips.com/

Re:Why not think of labels as folders?

Right, but it's just backwards from the way I'm used to, the way that works just fine.

Re:tracking and email

>>have you heard how much google plans to eventually charge for their email hosting service?Eek! I hope nothing!! I really wouldn't pay for this.

Re:Some comments and tips

>>Are you referring to Gmail's new domain-hosted email, or a single user account?The hosted, I have my @lisnews.com account there now.>>By all means, look into the keyboard shortcuts!Ah, good point, that's not something I'm used to having in a web based app!>>The login page needs an "onfocus" so I don't need to click on in the login box.That is something they fixed since I wrote that. The first week or so it wasn't there.>> I don't know if User Interface of the "hosted" version of Gmail works significantly differently from the single-user version.From what I can see it's the same thing. With the added control panel and lists. But I think the interface is mostly the same.

Re:Some comments and tips

I've always been a huge Gmail advocate, and though I do love Gmail, but I really wish that Google would push Gmail/Calendar/PageCreator/etc. "to the next level", by cleaning things up, tightening and simplifying cross-service integration, and offering more "user-tailorable" options. While I certainly understand that the developers myst be VERY careful to not break things, and keep things lean, like so many Google-offered products, though Gmail is excellent, it still misses in a few areas.Of course, it is my current favorite Web-based email service (I don't use an offline client) so I still back it 100%!!By the way, I just received an invite to try out the hosted service on my JimsTips.com site, so I now get a chance to try it out! Wheee!-Jimhttp://gmailtips.com/

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