Hotmail and Yahoo!, You Just Got Served!

I got one. Yes, a GMail account. Let’s see now, it was on May 19 at 10:30AM Eastern (that’s -0400 GMT for you Beeb listeners out there). Haven’t been signed out for more than the time I was sleeping since.

GMail’s interface is phenomenal for a Web application. Had to been months of planning and design that went into this by a team of very smart people (which Google is known for). Just for those who haven’t read the umpteen articles about the interface, here’s a quick run down: physical separation of messages has been totally removed in place of virtual separation by way of ”Labels”, messages are inherently related and viewed by ”Conversation” (which is what they call threading), quoted text is supressed by default (you click a JS link to see it if you want), Google-style search of mail (just as quick as Google Web search), rudimentary filter and contact support, autocompletion of email address in composition screen if the recipient is in your contacts list, keyboard shortcuts for oldschool UNIX greybeards, viewing of full original text (with complete headers) of email is possible with one click, ”Starring” of important messages which can be viewed by themselves, 1000MB of storage space, etc, etc.

There are some problems with GMail, as I’m sure others have stated before. HTML composition of email is impossible thus far, but that’s one feature that I won’t be missing. You can’t POP your email from GMail. Its browser support is awesome, but does not recognize Safari on Mac OS X as a supported browser (and indeed, Safari cannot handle all of GMail’s features). Once Safari support is in that will automatically bring all the Konqueror users into the GMail fold, as well (as they are both based on the KHTML rendering engine). I haven’t had call to use the spam filter yet, so I can’t comment on it one way or the other.

Anyway, this post isn’t about GMail’s problems. In my opinion, they are pretty trivial in comparison to the kind of service that Google is providing with GMail. What I’d like to comment on is the GMail interface and the state of the webmail game now that said game includes GMail.

Conversations. Interesting choice of wordage, considering the fact that “threading” was the accepted term for that style of UI for some years. However, I think I see two reasons why this was chosen.

  1. Conversations is a lot easier for the average non-geek to understand than threading
  2. With 1000MB of storage, conversations make a lot more sense than individual messages

1 is obvious and requires no further comment. #2, on the other hand, deserves some explanation. By giving the GMail user 1000MB of storage, Google has now made it possible to transfer the threading concept from a platform MUA to a Web-based one. This is because the user now has the space required to store all of their messages and not have to delete all but the most important messages. With Hotmail or Yahoo!, the single-digit MB storage limit doesn’t allow for one to keep a 40-post thread about milk-vs-dark chocolate laying around in their account. GMail, with 1000MB, does. Plus, by allowing this, Google can then make the logical (but still brilliant) leap to going completely to virtual folders. This does two things:

  1. Undoubtedly makes their searching, data aggregation and ad placement a lot easier (having only one real folder to go through), and
  2. Frees up a lot of management resources for other things because the user can now have an arbitrary number of classifications simply by creating a low-overhead Label instead of a high-maintenance folder.

Compare this to Yahoo! and Hotmail. It is not even possible to make other folders in Hotmail or Yahoo!, so a user is left only with the “Important” label to mark messages. This pretty much makes those accounts useless for mailing list traffic. Meanwhile, back in GMail land, the first thing I did with my account was to sign up for 4 different Linux kernel- and netfilter-related mailing lists. GMail makes the management of that list traffic easy and intuitive. Each list has a label which is automatically applied to incoming messages from that list and I can view them by label, or search for a set of terms if I need to correlate information from different mailing lists.

Now, the Conversation UI is also very sweet. When viewing a conversation, it appears as if you have a stack of papers, with the latest message in that conversation being on top. But you can still see all (or some, if there are lots of messages in that convo) of the taglines for the messages before it. As well, you can expand all messages and read them in temporal order with one click. Oh, and just so you don’t think they forgot: click the Print Conversation link and the entire conversation is popped up in a new browser window in temporal order, formatted for printing with the Print dialog standing at the ready for you to click OK. That’s just damn good UI, if you ask me. It’s impossible to do that with any other mail client I’ve used, platform or Web-based.

Oh, and redundant text (“redundant” being quoted text, in this case) is automatically hidden from the user so that you can view a conversation in a manner much more akin to spoken conversations. You can still get the quoted text if you want, but it being hidden by default is definitely a stroke of UI genius in my opinion. It is saving me all kinds of time by not having to reread stuff I’ve already read three times before, like every other MUA I’ve ever used.

Another thing that GMail has WAY over any other Webmail system is its speed. GMail pages are ultrasmall, and thus, ultrafast. The Compose Mail page fits in one IP packet. I did a small test. I have a Comcast cable modem at home, and I logged into a Hotmail account and arrived at the main screen (you know, the one with all the fucking image ads). I then clicked the Mail link to actually view my Inbox…

SIDEBAR: That has got to be the most annoying thing about Hotmail. The sheer arrogance of that UI decision is just infuriating. The fact that my Inbox is NOT the first thing I see upon logging into my Hotmail account, and that WHAT I DO SEE is a page full of useless-ass ads for teen dating services and “Top 5” lists being pawned off as journalism on MSN with only a piece of shit ”progress meter” to indicate whether or not I’ve received new mail is totally and utterly egotistical and moronic. This is the main reasons I will be allowing all my Hotmail accounts to go fallow. I only used it for catching spam anyway, but now I’m just going to alleviate myself from that particular piece of Microsoft-bourne egomaniacism for good.

Anyway, then I opened another tab in Mozilla and proceeded to log into GMail. I read four messages (all the new ones) and created a filter for one of them. I jumped back to the Hotmail tab, and guess what? Wasn’t finished loading the Inbox page yet… Yahoo! has similar problems with page loading speed (as observed by sad, sad individuals I work with who use it). GMail, clearly, eats other Webmail’s lunches in this area. At this point I can’t even imagine AOL’s platform interface being any faster than GMail is.

So, with a world-class, industry-leading interface, 250 times the storage of its closest competitor, years of experience in the search and 100%-uptime game (I can’t remember downtime for Google ever) and one of the fastest Web applications out there, GMail has definitely changed the Webmail game and served Hotmail and Yahoo!. I read a blog somewhere recently where the author was questioning the hype over GMail. “Its just Webmail with 1000MB of storage”, he said. Well, its not. The interface allows the user to take full advantage of the 1000MB they’ve been given. If Hotmail gave its users 1000MB tomorrow but didn’t change their UI, it would still be a piece of shit since the user isn’t given the tools to manage 1000MB worth of email.

Finally, lets talk about the Invite A Friend mechanism in GMail. This is just so genius that I’m not sure I can even really imagine it. This was, in my opinion, the smartest thing Google has done recently.

Number one, they control the expansion of the service extremely tightly, allowing them to accurately model the resources necessary to support and expand GMail. But, the best thing about this is that it creates an immense rarity for GMail accounts. This makes them seriously valuable and creates a big buzz around the GMail service. But, that’s secondary to what I think is the real value of the service for Google. With the Invite a Friend to Join GMail link that’s available after some amount of time on each person’s account, account holders decide who will be the next to use GMail.

This is way better than any social networking site. Starting with a kernel of known people, Google can now track who they invited and who those invited after that and so on and so forth. That’s a lot of informative and valuable data they are getting for virtually nothing, simply by arranging the service’s accounts in this matter. Its my opinion that Google won’t take GMail out of beta until they’ve accrued all of the information that they want to via this method.

P.S. The text ads that people are bitching about? So small that I had to bump up the font size in my browser to be able to read them at all. And some of the emails I read have no sponsored links at all. However, the ones that do always feature pertinent ads to what I’m reading. This is another key thing: I think the reason that I am so pissed off about Hotmail’s ads is that they never have anything to do with me. Tens of millions of people use Hotmail, and yet the ads are only targeted at the 18-25 single male/female just-out-of-college market. Get a grip, Microsoft. I predict that Google will singlehandedly kill the “stupid” ad market, stupid ads being ones that are not tailored to the context in which they appear.