Whenever I talk to people while they are e-mailing and their e-mail client crashes or misbehaves they ask me what I use for mail. “Gmail” I say. “Ah,” and they silently assume I’m one of those people who use a web-based mailer because I’m one from the “hotmail” generation. Those who are not even aware that you can use software other than a web browser to read your mail.
Although I am part of this “generation”, I am very aware of mailing clients, I have used many of them for a very long time. My choice of switching to Gmail is a very conscience one — no desktop mailer matches Gmail’s functionality. Email services like hotmail and yahoo try to mimic desktop clients like Outlook as much as possible, Gmail does not. Here are three reasons where Gmail does (in my opionion) better than any email application I’ve used:
This, to me, is by far the most important reason to use Gmail — the fact that it’s built around conversations rather than individual e-mails. Sure, many desktop client have a “thread view”, but they only show the thread structure, the messages you still have to read individually. Plus, it only groups messages in threads that are in the same folder. My own messages (which are in the Sent folder) do not appear in there. Gmail also hides the quoted parts of emails by default in this conversation view, which lets you read your email conversations in a very comfortable manner.
2. Archiving rather than moving or deleting
When I receive a message there are three things that I might do:
- Mark it as spam — I don’t do this much, I don’t get that much spam on Gmail.
- Delete it — I don’t do this much either, the only things I delete are messages from sites like CD Now, Amazon and so on. Mails that I’m sure I’ll never have to read again.
- Read and archive.
When I used IMAP I had a big folder structure for my e-mails. Whenever I read an e-mail I had to decide what do do with it. Either delete it or move it to one of the folders (which meant dragging it there). I had archive folders for general mail (one per year, for performance reasons) and folders for my work, personal mails, projects and so on. But as the amount of mail becomes big in those folders you either have to split them up, or remove mail from them. Of course having to move these mails yourself is annoying and often it’s pretty obvious where it should go. I could create mail rules that automatically move them there as they come in. The problem is that, then, my Inbox does not show me all mails anymore, it only shows the uncategorized ones. I have to look at my folder list if there are any other new mails.
In Gmail you don’t have this problem. There’s a “flat namespace” for all conversations. There are no folders. What you do have are labels. Every conversation can have zero or more labels. New mail automatically gets the “Inbox” label, which you can remove by archiving it (and it won’t display in the inbox anymore, only in the “All Mail” box). You can create your own labels (for example “work”, “project”, “personal”) and filters that automatically attach one more more of these labels to incoming mails. When you attach a label to a conversation you add it, not replace the current one. So my new mail can be both in the Inbox and in the WebDSL label listing. For instance, all the email coming in from the WebDSL mailing list is automatically labeled with the “WebDSL” label. When I read it, I archive it and it will disappear (but is easily retrieved by clicking on the “WebDSL” label). That means that once I read mails I don’t have to think about where to archive it. This makes my email reading process a lot more efficient.
3. Keyboard shortcuts
I operate Gmail entirely using the keyboard. This is a feature that is not enabled by default, you have to enable it in the settings. After enabling it you can press “?” to get a help screen with all the shortcuts. They include: j (next message) k (previous message) o (open message) # (delete message) a (archive message) ! (mark message as spam) s (star message), / (search email), x (mark an email and perform batch operations on it later) and so on. When you get familiar with these keys reading, responding to and managing your email gets really efficient.
What are generally considered drawbacks of web-based e-mail are two:
- You’re locked in, you cannot easily get your email out. This is not true for Gmail as you can use both POP3 and IMAP to download email.
- What if you don’t have an internet connection? I suspect Gmail will soon come out with a version that uses Google Gears that at least will make your email accessible without an internet connection. But you can also use POP3 or IMAP of course. As we speak I am downloading all my mail to my laptop, just in case.