Gmail: what's keeping it in Beta?

Plenty of things if you ask me. I’ve been using Gmail for a full week now, time enough to see what’s there and what’s not.

First off, from a functional point of view, the interface is just great. Keyboard shortcuts have been thoughfully implemented. If you think about it, there has been just one great email client so far: Pine. One of the reasons for it’s popularity is the ease with which all those keyboard combinations let you manage huge amounts of mail. It’s no wonder that the Gmail team chose to use many of the same key-combinations as Pine.

A lot of client-side caching is being done, interface elements don’t reload themselves unnecessarily. Labels are cool, filters are the usual. Address autocomplete is kick-ass. Search is no great shakes. Yahoo or Microsoft could implement similar search functionality in a day or two.

Conversation views are fresh in the world of web based email. It’s like thread-view in normal mail clients but Gmail shows messages you write in the same conversation too, something that mail clients don’t usually do - your replies are normally dumped in ‘Sent Mail.’ But Conversation view is far from perfect. In fact, I think it’s downright stupid right now. Even small changes in the Subject break the conversation. I did a small test with a few dummy messages. See below how a change in subject from ‘Test conversation view’ to ‘Test conversation view Updates’ leaves Gmail confused but Kmail, the KDE email client I use, has no problem dealing with this change.


Gmail Conversation


Kmail Threads

By the looks of it, Gmail is using extremely simplistic Subject matching to form Conversations, which isn’t remotely close to ideal. Combine bad threading ability with no way of reassigning messages to their proper threads and what do you get? Chaos in your mailbox. Since Conversation view is one of the selling points of Gmail, poor threading is an absolute show-stopper.

See this for an example of the different variables a good threading algorithm should take into account.

Another crucial aspect of the Conversation view metaphor is quoting the previous message. Gmail handles this with aplomb for plain text messages. It even hides quoted text which is really nice for long conversations. Sadly, when you are dealing with HTML or Rich Text emails, quoting doesn’t work properly. As much as I would want the world to stick to plain text emails, the reality is that a large number of people do use html/rich text. And I have to live with them. So unless Gmail learns to handle html emails as well as plain text ones, I don’t think it can leave Beta. While we are discussing html emails, can the Gmail guys please give me an option to ‘Always Display External Images’?

Attachments. Gmail’s handling of attachments can be described in one word: crappy. Yahoo lets me scan attachments before I download them and even view Word and Excel files online. I suspect Hotmail offers something similar. But Gmail can’t even show me a text attachment inline!! One more show-stopper.

Attachment handling

Earlier I said that the Gmail interface is great from a functional point of view. Let me add in a few things about the visual aspect of the interface. It’s simple, no jarring colours, no banners, no flash ads. But they could do with sprucing up some interface elements a bit.

Take a look at a truncated view of the Inbox below:

Gmail Inbox

Notice how Gmail shows the first few words from the email in light grey text? It’s a neat feature. But it adds to a sense of clutter within the Inbox. There seems to be too much data in there. Also, since the snippets just flow with the subject, your eyes go along with the flow and you are sort of forced to read the snippets even if you don’t want to. If you want to quickly scan your Inbox, you find it difficult because you find yourself reading the snippets for every message that your eye rests on.

I might be alone in this, but I would prefer if there were some kind of demarkation between the subject and the snippet. It would make the interface more usable, IMO.

Another small refinement I think would be to apply some kind of (colour) highlight to the subject of the Conversation. I’ve found myself literally searching for the subject more than once till now.

Gmail Conversation

All in all, Gmail is really neat and I’ll most likely be using it almost exclusively from now on - at least until my new employer gives me a company id (whichever company that is!). It’s got some big problems which Google needs to address before rolling out the service. Google’s known for striving for perfection in what they do. Remember Froogle and how long they sat on it before putting it out of Beta? I think their efforts with Gmail will be similar if not more. I am betting on a post-September release, but I don’t know if their IPO affects how and when they can roll out new services.