I can remember back in 2004 how geeked I was when I got my invite to Google’s brand-spanking new web mail, GMail.
As promised, it was a) different (email threads), b) fast (AJAX-fu) and c) big (unlimited quota). You’re all familiar with GMail, right? If not, why not?
Anyway, GMail has been my primary personal inbox for years, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Lately, it’s been rather quietly getting awesome. It’s pretty much a full-blown platform now, insomuch as any web site that allows you to run “apps” (you know, widgets, gadgets, mini-apps) is a platform. It’s as much a platform as Facebook is.
The awesomesness started with the addition of GTalk to GMail in February 2006. I’ve never been a fan of adding IM to web pages, but I do like the way it’s done in GMail, small, unobtrusive and minimizable. From what I’ve seen, the only integration that compares is Facebook chat.
A bonus feature that was new at the time was that any GMail account you exchanged mail with was automagically added to the GTalk buddy list. I was a little creeped out the first time this happened, but it makes good sense. Plus, it was easy to remove people from the list.
This year, the GMail team seems to be on a mission, starting with the formation of GMail Labs in June. Labs allows experimental features in the minds of GMail developers to reach a larger audience, where they can be beta-tested and possibly readied for the jump into production GMail.
Labs offers 30 or so features right now, and if you have an idea, you can suggest a feature. Very cool stuff, I know, surprise, we like lab work.
If you want to enable Labs features in GMail, look for the green beaker icon in the top/right nav bar.
You should check out what’s there. This week chat to SMS was re-released as a Labs feature. So now, you can send a text message directly to a phone number, or if a contact of yours has a phone number, you can select Send SMS from the chat window.
I tested this out with Rich today, and works like a champ.
So what? Well, sometimes you really want to get in touch with someone who’s not at a computer. You could whip out your phone and send a text, but why waste all that effort? It’s way faster to type on a full-sized keyboard, at least for you, not so much for your pal on the other end. But hey, maybe s/he should be at a computer.
There are other recently debuted Labs features you might like too, like Tasks, also released this week. I don’t use this type of feature, but from what I’ve read, it’s very similar to Remember the Milk.
Let’s also not forget the wonderfully helpful Mail Goggles feature which aims to prevent you from sending drunken emails you’ll later regret. How? It presents you with several math problems to complete in a short amount of time, which should slow you down enough if you’ve been drinking.
I’ve not tried it (yet), but I can think of several people I went to college with who would love to push this baby to its limits, being both excellent at math and drinkers. One of them used to solve the Rubix cube when hammered as a party trick. Yes, I am a nerd.
Not all the cool stuff goes into GMail Labs. Next on the list of enhancements was themes. At first blush, this doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but other Google products (e.g. iGoogle) have themes, and it breaks up the monotony.
GMail also recently added video chat. You may notice that people using video chat in your contact list are denoted with a handy green camera icon. I keep meaning to install this and test it out with Rich.
But wait there’s more! Last week, the GMail team offered up stickers, which was thoughtfully pointed out to me by one of our readers, noting my affinity for stickers. Alas, I’m short on real estate and don’t really have a use for a cheat sheet. Still cool stuff.
All good stuff. Today, I found a nugget in Rich’s Shared Items that really underlined GMail as a platform, TwitterGadget. Having a Twitter client in GMail is pretty sweet, but even more cool was the ability to add non-GMail Labs gadgets to my inbox, through the “Add any gadget by URL” feature in Labs.
Once enbabled, this puppy adds a Gadgets tab to the Settings page, and you can add any gadget your heart desires simply by pointing to its XML file.
So. Very. Cool.
Now do you see how GMail is a platform?
Plus, just like the social network “platforms” out there, your settings persist on all instances of GMail. The really cool part, to me anyway, is the convergence of other webby activities into the inbox.
Rumors of email’s demise are greatly exaggerated, and Google recognizes this. Facebook and MySpace realized this when they added inboxes. I wonder how long until Google Friend Connect brings a social network into my inbox? That’s the final missing piece between a social network like Facebook and GMail.
Many people smarter than I have noted that an inbox can tell volumes about your network and the strength of the ties within it. It’s only a matter of time before the inbox becomes the gateway to creating your network, if not the platform for the network itself.
What do you think? About Gmail, or any of this? Why don’t you use GMail? Seriously.
Sound off in the comments.