Gmail, what took you so long?

I’ve been an email client person ever since I got off using Telnet and Pine. I’ve used Eudora, Outlook, Thunderbird, Mail. I like email clients (well, with the exception of Outlook). Once I got an Android phone, I thought I’d give Gmail a try. A friend of mine had been using Gmail for quite a while, so I asked her what she thought about it. She loved it… except she had to warn me about how annoying “conversation view” might get. She wasn’t lying. It’s annoying. In fact, if you search for how to turn conversation view off, you’ll see thread after thread, feature request after feature request practically begging Google for the ability turn it off. Well, Google has finally relented. Maybe they are keeping to their pledge to not be evil.

P.S. To followers of my blog, I haven’t posted in a while, because I’ve been a little tired and busy, and I also haven’t had much new to say. So you get a fluff entry about Gmail. Yay!


Annoying Android usability issue – Gmail with multiple accounts

I love my Android phone. It’s a lot of fun, and I think Google has done a lot of good things with the Android platform. There are still some major usability issues, though, that I hope Google will iron out in Android 3.0 (Gingerbread).

Here’s one, for example:
Issue 1664: Gmail should allow choosing the From: address on an account that has multiple addresses
Send As Feature in Gmail

For years, I’ve been using Thunderbird as my email client. I used it on Windows. Then I used it on Ubuntu. Then I used it on Mac OS X. Recently, inspired by my move to an Android phone, I decided to go as Google as possible. Google Voice. Google Docs. Google Maps. Google Reader. Gmail. There were some things that took adjusting to in Gmail (conversations instead of messages, anyone?), but I didn’t miss Thunderbird as much as I thought I would. Google gives you nigh-unlimited email storage (I don’t see meeting the 7 GB limit any time soon the way my emails are going), and the interface is simple and quick, and easy to use. More importantly, I can aggregate with Gmail a bunch of email accounts into one, just as I would with a traditional desktop email client (like Thunderbird, Mail, Eudora, or Outlook).

In the regular Gmail web interface, you can choose which of these accounts is the default email address (meaning if you compose a new message, that message will have the from: address be that email address unless you choose otherwise), and you can also choose to have all replies sent from the email the original message was sent to. That means if someone sends an email to my church account and I hit Reply, the reply will appear to come from my church account; and if someone sends an email to my home account and I hit Reply, the reply will appear to come from my home account.

Pretty nifty feature to have. Too bad it’s missing from Android’s Gmail app. In the Android Gmail app, if you compose a new message, it will always come from your Gmail email address, regardless of what your setting is on the web client. And if you reply to a message, it will also come from your Gmail address. That makes it pretty much useless to me in terms of writing emails, seeing as how I use my Gmail account to aggregrate other email accounts, and I basically never want emails to appear to come from my Gmail account.

Fortunately, there’s a workaround, but it’s not pretty. The workaround is not to use the Gmail app. Just use the Gmail web interface in your favorite Android browser (Browser, Opera, xScope, Dolphin, etc.). If you use the mobile version (which is the default) of the web client, you won’t actually get to see your from: address, but it’ll still operate the way it’s supposed to (I tested it on both a reply and a new email). You can switch to the desktop (or “classic”) mode of the web client if you actually want to see the from: address.

Now, Google, how difficult would it really be to fix this problem?


Some advice for Google about Buzz

Google just announced a new service called Buzz, which is supposed to be Google’s answer to Facebook. Unfortunately, based on the Buzz site and its accompanying video, I don’t see this supplanting Facebook any time soon. I’ve got some advice for Google on how to make it work:

  1. Allow people to start slowly. Yes, when Facebook was released to the general public (not just college students), a lot of us felt like “Really? You want me to sign up for yet another thing? I thought we did all this? Friendster, MySpace, Xanga, etc. I don’t want another account.” Many people gave in, though, and created another account because Facebook offered the kind of lively community other social networking sites had not yet offered. It’ll be a lot more difficult to convince people to start up not only another social networking account but another email account. A good chunk of my friends have GMail accounts, but they don’t all have GMail accounts. From what I’ve seen, Buzz requires a GMail account and is part of the GMail interface. That’s a mistake. It should be its own thing (like Docs, Translate, Maps, etc.) with perhaps added integration with GMail if you already have a GMail account. Google wised up to this with its recent changes to Google Voice (you can have a subset of GV features by using your current cell phone number, and you can add more GV features by creating an entirely new GV number). If Google doesn’t encourage people to start slowly, Buzz will die, because I’d much rather keep in touch with all my Facebook friends than only the ones who use GMail (by the way, I have a GMail account, but it is not my main email account, and I check it through an email client, not through webmail).
  2. Really follow through on reducing noise-to-signal ratio. It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve finally grown to love Facebook. There are a few things about Facebook that still annoy me, though, and if Google wants to have people use Buzz, Google needs to step up and really fix the mistakes Facebook has refused to fix. The biggest problem for me now is that I’m basically friends with someone or I’m not. There are people I want to keep in touch with, but I don’t want to know every single aspect of their lives. Right now, Facebook allows me to either ignore certain friends completely… or hear about what they had for breakfast, and lunch, and snack, and what latest gadget they got, and some link they thought was interesting, and twenty pictures of their baby daughter. If Google can organically make the updates fit how friendships really work, that’d be a huge draw for future former Facebook users. No more fretting about whether someone is an acquaintance, a friend, a former close friend, a current close friend, a family member. You’ll get the kinds of updates you care about. Certain people will appear more frequently in your feed or more kinds of posts you care about will appear more frequently (to anyone who’s my Facebook friend right now, I love pictures and interesting status updates—I hate weird applications, quizzes, and embedded videos).
  3. Make privacy settings easy. The privacy settings in Facebook right now are the worst of both worlds: they’re complicated, but they are also not comprehensive enough. Just as I don’t want to hear everything about what’s going on in certain people’s lives, I don’t want everyone to know what’s going on in my life, but sometimes I want even acquaintances or not-so-close friends to know certain things. In Facebook, people can basically either see your updates… or they can’t. If Buzz has the ability to set any given post as for just super-close friends, for all my friends, for all my friends and acquaintances, or for anyone with internet access, that’d score points for me and make me want to move over from Facebook.
  4. Keep the interface consistent. I have no doubt, actually, that Google will do this. I’ve seen them overhaul GMail and the Google homepage, but they tend to take years to do a makeover. Facebook seems to want to redecorate every few weeks, and that annoys its users. If Google wants to bring people over, there needs to be a lot of emphasis about what Buzz has to offer that Facebook doesn’t.
  5. Encourage folks to “dual-boot.” If Google can find a simple way to encourage people to try out Buzz and actually use it while not entirely giving up Facebook, that’d be gold for Buzz. No one is going to drop Facebook completely and start Buzzing. If Buzz is going to take off, people have to be able to test the waters. I would suggest a Buzz kickoff week, in which Google encourages everyone with a GMail account to take a brief sabbatical from Facebook and Buzz about something cool that week.

That’s all I can think of. And I don’t even think that’s a surefire way to get Buzz to take off. I think if Google takes all these suggestions, it may have a fighting chance against Facebook. No guarantees, though. Right now, Facebook is everywhere.


Gmail and Privacy

Some people might say I’m naive, but I trust Google. Could it soon turn into an “ugly” corporation? Yes. There are some indications it’s moving in that direction—for example, its introduction of banner ads, when they used to have just text-only ads. I won’t trust them forever, but I trust them now. There is a lot of skepticism in the media these days about Google’s new “free” email program Gmail, so much so that Google has to even offer a disclaimer page in light of the controversy.

Well, what are people so upset about? Apparently, Google’s robots (i.e., not real human people) will scan incoming emails in order to target ads relevantly to the email content—the idea being that it makes sense, for instance, if you’re discussing music with your friend that ads for music services would appear next to the email message, as opposed to ads for a digital camera or a vacation to Paris. The skepticism itself reveals a large degree of naivete, though. If a company (especially a major one) says its robots will scan your emails and not its employees, you have to trust them; otherwise, don’t use their service. If you don’t trust the folks at Google, why would you trust the folks at Hotmail or Yahoo? They also say they won’t have humans read your emails… but you don’t know. You never know. As long as your email messages reside on their servers (yes, the messages physically reside in other people’s computers), someone else will have access to those messages and you have to trust that they won’t read them.

The only way to be truly safe is to buy an extra computer, make that computer a server, and create your own email program that will store your messages on your own server; then, you have to make sure you encrypt all your messages with the latest security technology. Very few people do this. Most of your email is open and out there. If you use Hotmail or Yahoo! and you trust them not to read your emails because they say they won’t read your emails, you have to trust Google not to read your emails as well.

Google’s disclaimer page makes a good point, too, that every email provider scans emails. That’s how they institute spam-blocking, by scanning for content. The real issue is whether or not Google reveals any information about you to the sponsoring advertisers whose links you click on. Google says it doesn’t. And you just have to trust what they say because that’s what you’re probably doing right now with someone else.