First impressions of Google’s GMail

I got my invite to participate in the GMail beta test last week from Blogger and I have been putting Google’s latest offering through its paces. Blogger has been inviting ‘active’ bloggers to participate in this beta test. I don’t know how Blogger defines ‘active’ bloggers but I’m glad I got the invite.

First things first – It’s true: You get 1 GB of space. I am not even close to making a dent in my allocation. The second thing that’s really gotten people all riled up is the idea of Google targeting ads to you as you read your email and the ads would be based on the contents of the email message. The privacy advocates think this is a serious violation, but I don’t really see it. I like my privacy but it’s not like people are Google are going to be reading my email (boy, would that be boring ) – It’s all done programmatically and that already happens to most if not all email that you send or receive. I use Mailblocks as my primary mail client and they scan all emails for spam. For my other email accounts, I use Outlook as my POP client and my ISP scans all inbound emails for spam and virus. I’ve also purchased Cloudmark’s Outlook add-in to further scan all inbound emails. And so by the time I get to my email, it’s been scanned, parsed, processed about 4-5 times. I’m sure this debate will continue and Google will probably change how this ad placement works.

Back to the mail client – Google’s GMail has a very nice, simple to use interface. But I was surprised to see how it works better in IE vs. Mozilla FireFox. There are some pretty cool and innovative features that I haven’t seen in other mail clients. The one that stands out is the ‘Conversation’ feature where GMail groups related messages together to create a threaded view. When you open a message in a conversation, all of your messages are stacked on top of each other. Another great feature is the ‘auto-complete’ that assists you with suggestions from your Contacts list when you are adding an address in the To: or CC: line. I also love the keyboard shortcut keys where you can just hit a key to perform an action. For example, you can just hit the letter ‘c’ to compose a new message or ‘r’ for reply in your browser.

The one thing that will take a little getting used to is the whole idea of labels and conversation vs. folders. GMail doesn’t allow you to create folders to separate email message – Instead, you use labels. Labels are like email folders in GMail, but you can apply multiple labels to the same email and so it’s like having the same message in 2 different folders. That’s pretty neat. Once you’ve read your email message(s) and applied the appropriate label(s) to them, you archive them which essentially moves them out of the inbox into another folder called ‘All Mail’. You can also create ‘Filters’ to automatically process email and either move, delete, apply label or directly archive it. I’m trying that out on mailing lists that I subscribe to – Based on the From: line, I am applying a certain label and archiving them. When I am ready, I can read the conversation and the mail messages.

Spam filtering is another option that is built into GMail. I am not sure what is being used under the cover but you train the filter by marking messages as Spam and then inbound Spam automatically gets moved into the Spam folder. I’ve been training it for a few days now and it’s hard to tell just yet how effective it is, but time will tell.

One of the neatest features is the search facility in the mail client. GMail allows you to search all your email for keywords, much like it’s search engine counterpart. This is a great feature and a must if you have a lot of email. I use Lookout inside Outlook to find items buried in my mail file today.

There are two major pieces of functionality missing that I am hoping are coming soon. The first item is the missing import facility for your Contacts. I have tons of contacts that I don’t want to type in by hand again but GMail doesn’t appear to have an import feature at this time. Another feature that would be a nice-to-have is the ability to connect to other mail accounts via. POP or IMAP.

In spite of the missing features I describe above, GMail is an awesome mail service and should completely change the free mail service landscape. How can Hotmail, Yahoo and other that offer 2 to 4 MB compete with a 1000 MB? I am still very happy with Mailblocks and my 100 MB space that I pay for and I am not sure I will jump to GMail. I will probably continue to use both services in the near future and will continue to watch how GMail shapes up.