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December 10, 2008

Fixing Gmail: How the Best Can Be Better

Gmail is the best Webmail client in the World. I get that. However, winning that contest is a bit like being named the “Most Talented Baldwin”. The competition is thin, to put it generously.

Sure, some people swear by Yahoo!’s mail offering. It is pretty and it does deal with some of the issues I address below, but it also doesn’t load on slower connections, has a terrible search function and can’t import email (seriously, are you THAT stupid Yahoo?). Compound that with no IMAP access and a paid account that doesn’t equal Gmail’s free offering, you have a rather distant second at best.

Outside of a few startups that are doing promising things with Web-based email, such as Zenbe, Gmail stands alone. There is no one out there that really competes with Gmail in this area. They were the first to introduce the super-sized mailbox for free, they were the first to use tags not folders on Webmail (Opera did it first in their mail client), they were the first to give free IMAP access and they were the first to actually put one iota of thought into usability.

But can it be better? Damn right. Nothing in the world is immune from improvement, except perhaps Joan Jett, so what can one do to make Gmail just a little more awesome? Here’s my pick of five things that can push it to eleven.

5. Fixing Google Chat

Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about the idea of chat integrated into my Gmail. Sure, I like the idea of all my communications in one place, but as Facebook chat has shown us, Web-based chat is usually a big steaming pile of fail.

However, Gmail chat does a reasonable job but the problem is that it is not a replacement for my existing IM clients. Since I use Adium at work and Digsby at home, there’s no reason to leave the Gmail chat logged in.

If Google chat would gain support for Yahoo!, MSN and other services, it might be able to replace my Adium, remove an application from my desktop and truly unify my communications. Until then, I have to hope that someone ports Spicebird over to the Mac.

4. Google Reader Integration

Though Web Clips was an interesting experiment, it is another case of right idea, wrong execution. I don’t know a single Gmail user that has this feature switched on right now and it is the first thing I disable in any new account I set up (which is actually very rare but that isn’t the point).

The idea of integrating RSS with email is an old one and a good one. Outlook users, for example, have been doing it for years and script authors have been integrating Google Reader into Gmail since at least 2006.

With such a high demand and a logical connection, it is a shame that Google has not done anything officially on this front. The idea of Web Clips is an interesting one, but it is too distracting and completely useless for actually reading RSS feeds.

Time to reboot that idea.

3. API

Google, for the most part, is a pretty open company and Gmail, in most ways, is no exception. There are several ways to allow other applications, including mail clients and Web sites, to access your Gmail contacts and mail so that you can view your information anywhere.

But what about the other direction? What if I wanted to create an application to run inside Gmail? It can be done but most of the methods available right now involve hacking the browser, not Gmail. This defeats much of the advantage of Webmail and it’s “always available” mentality.

I can write gadgets for iGoogle so why not Gmail? Security would have to be tightened so that only apps the user expressly allowed could be run, possibly including some kind of vetting process by Google, but this could endlessly extend Gmail and, if also able to edit the look and feel of Gmail, could create countless new themes.

Theoretically, adding this feature could make all of my other issues go away over time…

2. Connectivity With Other Services

Ok, Gmail is pretty flexible here. I can email someone or IM them, if they use Google Talk or AIM. Nice. But what if I want to call them? I can’t do that in Gmail, even though it already integrates Google Talk chat, it doesn’t include calling features.

Ok, fine. But what if I want to Twitter them, Facebook them, Myspace them, etc. I have to leave the site. So many sites offer brilliant APIs that Gmail does not interact with. It doesn’t even integrate with Jaiku, a product Google actually owns.

Gmail needs to stop thinking in terms of just email and IM and open up to all of the ways that people communicate. It can be a communications hub, not just an email service/client.

1. Tabs

I don’t get this one. iGoogle has tabs, Chrome has tabs and they are joined by a slew of other Google products that have embraces the goodness that is tabbing.

Why not Gmail?

This is one of the few areas where Gmail actually lags behind Yahoo!. Yahoo’s mail product has long supported tabs, ever since the new version came out, leaving Gmail users to wonder what is taking the big G so long?

Here’s the problem. Say that you are hammering out a long email and you realize that you need to either A) Research something discussed in a different conversation or B) Get a phone number from your contacts. Either way you have to save your draft, open up the search box and find what you’re looking for.

There is no way to do two things at once in Gmail without opening up new tabs or windows in your browser. That is stupid and downright counter-productive when you’re working on something lengthy, doubly so when it requires you to do research in your email account.

Tabs, even just one for reading mail, one for composing and one for contacts, would be a HUGE leap forward.

Seriously, can we get on that, now that you’ve pushed out templates, themes and signature fixes?

Bottom Line

I love Gmail, I want to make that clear, whether I am using it in my favorite email client via IMAP or the Web-based interface, I do like Gmail. Sure, I may gripe as a Google Apps user when I feel a bit shortchanged, but no one seems to have been able to create anything better.

But that is the crux of the Gmail problem. It isn’t that Gmail is so incredibly awesome that angels weep whenever they look at it, it is that the bar has been set so low that Google, with a relatively mediocre effort, was able to leap over the bar and then do a dance on top of it.

While all of that is well and good, the problem is that it wouldn’t take much for someone else to knock them off of their perch. Gmail got where it did by rethinking the email experience but, unless they keep rethinking Gmail, the next evolution will unseat them brutally.

All it takes one start up with a good idea and Gmail will become the next Hotmail…