How Gmail destroyed Outlook.

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Jan. 29 2009 5:52 PM

The Best E-Mail Program Ever

How Gmail destroyed Outlook.

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As of this week, Gmail has reached perfection: You no longer have to be online to read or write messages. Desktop programs like Microsoft Outlook have always been able to access your old mail. There is a certain bliss to this; if you've got a pile of letters that demand well-composed, delicate responses (say you're explaining to your boss why you ordered that $85,000 rug), unplugging the Internet can be the fastest way to get things done. That's why offline access is a killer feature—it destroys your last remaining reason for suffering through a desktop e-mail program.

Google's not alone in providing this option. Microsoft's Windows Live Mail, Yahoo's Zimbra, and the mail app made by the Web startup Zoho, among other services, also provide some measure of untethered e-mail access. For now, Google calls this addition "experimental"—you've got to turn it on explicitly, and the company is asking users to report any bugs—but I found it easy to set up and a delight to use.

To get offline access, you first need to download and install a small program called Google Gears (except if you're using Google's Chrome browser, which comes with Gears built in). Then, after you enable Gmail's offline capability, the system will download two months of your most recent messages, which should take 30 minutes to an hour. Now you're good to go: When you're offline, type www.gmail.com into your browser, log in—yes, Gears enables you to log in even when you don't have a Web connection—and there's your e-mail. Though I work from home and rarely find myself away from a hot Wi-Fi connection, I shut off my router and parked myself on my couch for about an hour yesterday. I loaded up Gmail on my laptop, and it responded seamlessly—I could read, search through, and respond to any message I'd received during the last two months, all through the familiar Web interface. Eureka! I'll never again be mailless on a plane, a subway, or anyplace else where you don't have the Web but do have a lot of time to kill.

Now that Gmail has bested the Outlooks of the world, it's a good time to assess the state of desktop software. There are some things that work better on your computer (your music app, your photo editor, your spreadsheets), and there are some that work better online (everything else). Over the last few years, we've seen many programs shifting from the first category to the second—now you can get spreadsheets and photo editors online, though they're still not as good as programs hosted on your computer. But e-mail has crossed the line completely. Hosted services like Gmail are now the most powerful and convenient way to grapple with a daily onslaught of mail. If you're still tied to a desktop app—whether Outlook, the Mac's Mail program, or anything else that sees your local hard drive, rather than a Web server, as its brain—then you're doing it wrong.

The shift has been a long time coming. On July 4, 1996, Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith, two techies who met while working at Apple, launched Hotmail, the first free e-mail service on the Web. The date wasn't accidental—from the beginning, Web-based e-mail sought to liberate people from the strictures imposed by traditional providers (ISPs, universities, and employers, all of whom required some official affiliation before they gave you an e-mail address). Hotmail would give an inbox to anyone—you could even sign up for multiple addresses—and pretty soon it was impossible to find a soul who didn't e-mail.

But it was a terrible hassle to actually use Hotmail—which Microsoft purchased in 1997—or the rival e-mail systems built by Yahoo, AOL, and the various other Web portals that dominated the last tech boom. Back then, Web-based e-mail was a great idea executed poorly. Internet connections, Web browsers, and Web-design technologies were slow and flaky; you waited an eternity to load up a message, you could easily lose a draft of a long e-mail if something went amiss with your modem, and you had a limited amount of storage space. Web e-mail was a redoubt of amateurs. If you were serious about your inbox, you kept it on your desktop.

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.

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