How to improve Gmail

Photo by Michael Bonnet Jr

I’m a big fan of Google Mail, I’ve moved most of my family over to it, and use it for my own accounts. They offer a lot of tools for searching and filtering your email, their browser interface is top-notch with advanced support for things like hot-keys, and they support APIs like IMAP so you can easily connect to non-web devices. I’m eagerly anticipating the day that they apply the same smarts they use to process web data to all of that information in my inbox, but the service seems to have stood still since it was launched.

My hopes were raised when I saw the launch of Gmail Labs, but I was disappointed when I looked through the experimental tools available. They were all fairly minor UI tweaks, things like removing the chat sidebar or the unread items counts. I was looking forward to seeing some funky analytical magic, things like Xoopit’s innovative attachment display, or extracting your social network from your mail history.

I’m not sure why Google is being so slow to innovate with Gmail. Part of it may be technical, doing those sort of analytics requires a lot of database work, and that may be too resource-intensive and scary for the spare-time Labs model to produce results. They may be worried about the negative effects on their reputation if they’re seen to be data-mining peoples emails too. It makes sense for them to focus on attracting users to their service. If anything like Xoopit does become popular, they can imitate and rely on gathering a similar customer base to be a big barrier to any smaller competitors. Hotmail and Yahoo could pose a threat thanks to their larger user count, but they seem even less likely to do something radical and new.

To move forward, I agree with Marshall Kirkpatrick that Gmail should offer an API for email content, one that doesn’t require users to hand over their passwords like IMAP. Imagine all the fun stuff that a Facebook-style plugin API could offer to mail users, operating securely within a Google sandbox to limit the malicious possiblities. If the reputation risks of that are too scary, they could make progress with an internal push to do something similar, encouraging their mail developers to move beyond incremental improvements and really sink their teeth into some red meat innovation.

I think the biggest barrier is the perception of email as boring, which leads to few resources being devoted to it, which leads to few innovations, which makes it appear boring. Hopefully services like Xoopit and experiments like Mail Trends will break that cycle by opening people’s eyes to the possibilities.

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