The Best E-Mail Program Ever
How Gmail destroyed Outlook.
Desktop e-mail presented its own challenges, though. People who were serious about e-mail tended to archive all their messages. But desktop e-mail apps performed poorly when overloaded with mail; Outlook, for instance, crawled to halt if you stuffed it with just a few tens of thousands of messages, which for some people is only a few months' worth. What's more, keeping all your mail in one place was both annoying and not very safe. You couldn't easily check your messages on multiple computers. And what if you wanted to switch to a new computer? Or what if a power surge crashed your drive? As a journalist working during the Internet bust, my particular worry was getting a pink slip. If my boss suddenly asked me to turn in my company-provided laptop, all my e-mail—both professional and personal correspondence going back years—would be gone.
By the time Gmail launched in summer 2004, I was desperate for an alternative to Outlook. (I had tried pretty much every other desktop e-mail app.) From the moment I logged on, I found it liberating. Gmail's interface was quick and intuitive, unlike any other major online service at the time. (Gmail did borrow some design ideas from Oddpost, an ahead-of-its-time Web e-mail app developed in 2002; Yahoo bought Oddpost in 2004.) Gmail was the first to display multiple messages on the same subject as threaded conversations—a design idea that user-interface experts had long been saying would make e-mail easier to use. Switching to Gmail also freed me from worrying about how I preserved my mail—Google, whose servers are much more secure than my own computer, was taking care of backups for me.
What separates Gmail from its rivals is a basic design philosophy: It's built for power e-mailers. Late last year I visited the Gmail team at Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. Keith Coleman, Gmail's program manager, told me that from the beginning, Google aimed to build something suitable for people who got a ton of mail—because in the future, everyone will get a ton of mail. Gmail's main features are all catnip for folks who find themselves buried under the weight of their inbox. There's a search engine worthy of the Google name, a slate of keyboard shortcuts that make organizing your messages brutally efficient, and a crowdsourced spam detector that keeps out unwanted messages. Best of all, Gmail is fast—you can switch between messages and folders quicker than you can in any other e-mail program, even desktop-based systems. Coleman told me that the team is constantly measuring and tweaking the responsiveness of its interface. (The software gives coders a readout of how long, on average, various tasks take to complete.) The Gmail managers are also gaga over user-interface tests: Before instituting any major feature, developers bring users into a whiz-bang lab outfitted with cameras and eye-tracking software to see how people react to the new stuff.
Lately Coleman and his staff have been improving Gmail at a breakneck pace. They added a way to let people chat by voice and video, and they put out "themes" that personalize the appearance of your e-mail screen. Last summer, they launched Gmail Labs, a repository of add-on programs that run alongside Gmail. Offline access is one of these many Labs features; you can also add a to-do list, buttons to send people quick canned responses, a mini-program for sending text messages to cell phones, and a "gadget" for monitoring your Google Calendar and Google Docs from your e-mail. All these add-ons were created by Google programmers, but Coleman says that Gmail is also experimenting with letting outside developers add stuff. Google seems to be trying to create more than just a great e-mail program; with all these add-ons, Gmail is becoming a sort of e-mail platform whose users benefit from the best ideas in mail management.
And that gets to what's so exciting about being a Gmail user right now. The app keeps getting better. You might say that's true of desktop systems, too; Outlook is not as clunky as it was five years ago, and, no doubt, it'll be better five years from now. But so will Gmail—and because it's online, you'll get those improvements faster, and without having to install any software. Now that you can use Gmail anywhere—even when you're beyond the reach of broadband—there's no longer any reason to suffer.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.