Impressions on GMail

A couple days ago, I was invited to pick up a GMail account (blowery AT gmail DOT com). I’ve been playing around with it and here’s what I’ve found:

  • The default, conversation-centric view is really fantastic. I’ve gone back and forth with a friend of mine a few times to see how it tracks the conversation and how it displays the messages. The current message is displayed in full, while previous messages are displayed in chronological order, with only a small summary of that message showing. I like how it shows the conversation in chronological order. I also really dig on how they collapse previous messages to save space and bring the information together spatially. You can also click on a previous message to show the whole thing. One thing to keep in mind with all this is that it’s all happening in-page. It doesn’t feel like they’re going back to the server to fetch the full page; they may be fetching the full message, but it’s still quite snappy. Because they don’t do traditional page refreshs, it really doesn’t feel like a web app, other than the lack of rich editing controls. Interestingly, they do use page refreshes at some points, which seem to be carefully laid out to correspond with the possible use of the back button in your browser. For instance, click on a conversation thread does a full refresh to show the thread, but clicking on individual items in the thread refreshes in place. When you hit the back button, you move back to the list of conversations, which is really quite nice. I wouldn’t expect back to simply undo my expand/collapse choices within the thread, and it does not. They really spent a lot of time thinking about interactions between the browser and the application.
  • Quoted text is hidden by default. Citing the previous point, the conversation-centric view really makes it unnecessary to have each message contain some little bit of context. You have the full context of the conversation sitting in front of you; why bother with quoted text?
  • The UI is really really slick. It’s one of the better examples of making a web UI truly dynamic and reactive to the user. The UI includes keyboard shortcuts for common commands (u = refresh and show me the inbox for example) and is laid out very well.
  • Macintosh support is pretty spotty. It doesn’t appear to work in Safari at all. However, it works quite well in Camino (and I would guess by extension, any Mozilla-based browser). The sign-in page explicitly states that the app does not work with IE5/Mac. If you want to use GMail from a Mac, you’re going to have to install something based on Mozilla.

I think Google has a winner on their hands. It’s certainly better than Yahoo mail or Hotmail, and the gig of storage is pretty handy. I don’t have enough messages yet to really make the search bits stretch their legs, but I’ll report back when I do.

The only thing I really wish it had that it doesn’t is the ability to map onto a non-gmail e-mail address. I would love to use this interface on top of my e-mail accounts.