Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Do You Keep Gmail Open in Your Browser?

Everyone who uses Gmail knows this: You keep Gmail open in your browser all day so you can check your email, send off messages, and search your email archives.

Why This is Unacceptable

Yes, I believe that Gmail is the future of email (I'm a little biased).

But this is far from the optimum. Keeping Gmail and Google Calendar open in your browser should not be how we'll do email in 10 years.

  1. It gets lost: Gmail being just an open tab in your browser means that it will get lost among many other tabs and browser windows that are open. As I'm writing this blog entry, I have 11 tabs open in Firefox.

  2. No notifications: Unless you install separate tools, Gmail can't notify you of new important messages that come in. I'm not a fan of push email as it increases hyperactivity, but some level of notification, especially for meetings approaching in Google Calendar would be useful.

  3. No integration into your workflow. Clicking mailto links doesn't work. There's no spot on your screen that says "email". There's no right-click send for documents.

Should Gmail Become Outlook?

Should the Gmail become a desktop client Outlook? No. I think that would be a step back, not forward. I imagine the ideal setup to be like Tweetie's desktop client. An icon sits in your desktop bar and gently lights up when new things arrive. (Update: Mailplane and Fluid have similar functionality, but only for the Mac).

Here's how I imagine the optimal desktop webmail experience:
  1. Always on: It's not a tab you launch in your browser. It starts when your computer starts and it's on while you're working.

  2. Smart notifications: Rather than showing a toast notification or playing a chime sound for each email that arrives, it would know about the relative importance of messages and infer from your behavior if it's OK to interrupt you. There's plenty of research about both importance and notifications that still needs to make it into the real world.

  3. Keeps a copy of all your messages: I think reMail demonstrates how powerful it is to have all your mail on your phone. If you have your mail on your phone, why can't you have it on your desktop? Offline Gmail is headed the right way. In my ideal client, its features would become standard.

Making real progress in email clients is hard. It's easy to add new widgets, helper utilities, notifiers, and spam bots. But it's hard to move the needle on the fundamental paradigms - how do we read, check, search, and organize. Moving Gmail away from the browser into an always-on background app seems comparatively easy. The things I mentioned could probably be done by a third party - it doesn't need to be Google. Please, let's get this done.


Mark Trapp said...

Hey Gabor, looks like you're using Mac OS X: I recommend both Fluid and Mailplane to get what you want done. Both integrate with Growl and can provide different notification features and integrate with mailto: handlers while still providing the same Gmail user experience. Fluid's free and you can have multiple Gmail accounts open at the same time, but Mailplane adds a bunch of OS X interface features like drag-and-drop to Gmail.

Gabor said...

Hi Mark, thanks for the pointers!

I've actually tried Mailplane in the past. I think the stuff they do should become standard for Gmail - this is too important to not be part of the default setup, on Windows and Mac.

I was hesitant to include that Tweetie screenshot because people would reduce my post to "Gmail should be a desktop app". In addition to desktop integration, I would like smart notifications and all my mail data on my computer (just like in reMail).

For example, if I get an email from an investor in reMail, it should notify me whatever I'm doing. If I get a "someone commented on your blog" email, it should only interrupt me if I don't have Xcode open (and I'm not deep in thoughts).

Thanks again,


Mark Trapp said...

Ah, I see your points now. It seems like the problems are all solved, but nobody's put them together yet into a coherent (or cross-platform) package.

For example, Growl has smart notification capability built into it (Prowl, an iPhone app, can do different things based on parsing a growl notification for certain keywords), but nobody else really takes advantage of it.

There's the drag-and-drop API, but I think Wave is the only major communications platform using it; and there's Google Gears/HTML5 DOM storage, but that isn't portable (every UA has to download the mail corpus separately).

I suspect Wave is out to solve a lot of these problems, but I definitely agree with you that it'd be nice to see that stuff for simple Gmail.

Gabor said...

Indeed. This isn't rocket science.

(Although making smart notifications does involve some machine learning, if you want to make it really good :-)

Thanks, Gabor

Anton Kovalyov said...

Gabor, the problem with not keeping GMail open all the time is that it is really, really slow. It takes 10-15 seconds for my personal account to load (google apps, free) and around half of a minute to load corporate email (google apps, paid).

Gabor said...

Anton: I think that's more of a problem with our office Wifi setup :-)

Btw, I don't think that keeping Gmail open is bad. I'm only saying it's not a long-term solution for the underlying problem.

Michael said...

I run Gmail in a Site Specific Browser (Fluid for OS X). This is awesome as: it's not slow (running on Webkit), it doesn't crash or get crashed by my main browser, I get email count notifications on the icon.

I haven't messed with it myself, but there is also some way to make the thing into a MenuExtra (which I think you might find helpful).

Gabor said...

Michael: Haven't tried Fluid but Mailplane and it's good. Gmail should buy or copy that setup and allow Windows/Linux users to do the same thing.

Also, the challenge is not just to make Gmail run in its own window but provide smart notifications and a complete offline copy.

Space Cowboy said...

Could you point to some research (papers/literature) which determine how "important" a mail is?

Gabor said...

Space Cowboy - thanks for the suggestion, just wrote about it here.


PhL said...

Bonjour Gabor,

Here comes smart notification : Kwaga BirdsEye.


- PhL

Research Paper said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gabor, Thanks for your post. I have been using gmail from the early days and it is by far the most intuitive and useful email program out there.

I have a weird question and have been searching for an answer. We have a former employer claiming that we might have proprietary information stored on our computers because information was forwarded from a business account to personal gmail account. I think this is false because the emails were only viewed in a browser. Does gmail store actual files on the computer when email is viewed on the browser?