Google has started the email wars with the introduction (still in beta stage) of Google mail, Gmail for short. For most people the main attraction has been the 1GB (1000MB) storage. In the coming months, however, that would stop being such a big deal. Yahoo mail has already increased its storage to 100 MB for free accounts and 2GB for paid accounts (nominal charges). Rediffmail has also announced 1GB (free) and soon most free mail providers will follow suit. They will have to! In this war of mailbox sizes, Gmail's unique experimentation with web-based mail, in terms of its spread of features, might get lost. And that would be a pity.
What is Gmail?
Gmail is Google's free web-based email that boasts of 1GB storage, and a different way of looking at webmail. It's still in beta stage, meaning it's open only for test purpose, before the actual launch, when any and every person could get this account. As of now, Gmail account can be had only through invitations. Google distributes these invitations as and when they want more users to test, through existing users. I was fortunate enough to get one such invitation pretty early, and the experience with this webmail service has left me convinced that even as a beta, it is a serious threat to the existing mail providers like Yahoo!, Hotmail, etc.
The most promising thing about this service is of course that it is a Google product. And Google, if its history is a guide, is company with a difference. When most search engines were out diversifying, cluttering their search interface with lots of junk, Google stuck to the KISS philosophy, Keep It Simple Stupid. And, they concentrated on their strength, which was search. Today, Google is synonymous with search, with Googling being used for web-searching. Many of Google's competitors are now its customers!
With Gmail, Google is venturing into a new field, with its core-expertise as its main weapon. It is built around Google's powerful search capabilities.
Features and Interface!
Admittedly, Google's interface is a bit nerdy. Conventional wisdom would tell you that if you're launching a product, keep the interface recognizable with the existing and dominant interfaces. But if they followed the conventional wisdom, Google wouldn't be Google. However, once one gets used to the differences, it's not that strange.
Conversations: Messages are organized as conversation threads, rather than in a chronological order. So if you send a mail to a group of people, and then all of you engage in a discussion on emails, all those emails would be clubbed together as a conversation. This is the feature that's common to many email/news clients, but none of the major free mail providers give this feature. Conversations feature helps tremendously when you're engaged in such email discussions. When you click on a conversation, it also does a few smart things such as opening only those mails that are unread, while read mails are shown as a one line header summary.
Labels: It does not have a formal concept of "folders". All the mail is archived together. You can label a message with a symbolic tag, which can be used for searching or displaying mails thus tagged. There is still an inbox, a sent-mail, and a trash (and archived-messages). But a message can be in any of these and still have an additional label. The advantage being that your sent messages and received messages can still be clubbed (and indeed searched) with a specific label. In the normal folder view this feature is not available, and you need to search in each folder separately (and that too with complicated searches).
Search: This has got to be the best with Google! The search feature is really flexible and powerful. The best thing being the ability to search in all-mail, that is your inbox, archive, sent-mail and even trash. There is a search-language defined, just like the Google search. There is also a more user-friendly search, if you don't want to learn/use the search language. This is one of the most comprehensive mail searching that I've seen. So much, that I'm not sure I'm going to use even a part of this power.
Miscellaneous Features: Gmail's beta interface also has so many small and helpful features, which makes me wonder what the real stuff will offer. Google maintains your contact list on its own. So when you start typing the address/name of the recipient, you get completion hints just like your desktop client. The compose screen has various tabs, like reply, reply all, forward, etc. The advantage being that, say you started by replying and wrote half of your reply and realized it should have been reply-all. No problem, no need to save, go back, cut-n-paste. Just click on the relevant tag, and voila! There are also the normal features like filters (which can do multiple things at a time, like starring a message, archiving it, labeling it and so on) available.
What's Wrong With It?
Not all is well of course. Missing is any integration with desktop tools that intimates you when a new mail comes. Missing is facility to read mails from external mailboxes. There is no way to disable conversations and move back to chronological display for those inclined that way. Too many clicks (not page fetches, per se, but still clicks, as Gmail has almost on-demand views for everything from recipients addresses to showing quoted texts). In general, it has done lot of configuration which is not alterable; configurability as such is limited. But the biggest concern has to be privacy, and it is.
Gmail's business model is such that your mails will be automatically scanned and relevant (which is a misnomer, if you ask me!) ads will be pushed alongside that mail. This raises a privacy issue but frankly, it's no human operator sitting there and reading your mails. If you are okay with the policy, Gmail is definitely worth giving a try. Chances are that you'll make it your primary account.