GMail is a Platform, Have You Noticed?

GMailI 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.

GMail Labs

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.

Send SMS Test with RichYou 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.

TwitterGadgetAll 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.




  1. I like GMail. I use GMail. I don't need it to do everything. I need it to be an tightly-integrated and useable PIM. The problem is, GMail isn't overly usable in that manner for me. The template doesn't have enough flexibility. iGoogle helps me better organize and enable a workflow that works for me that GMail can't. This is just my opinion…

  2. Sure, I don't need Facebook to do everything either, but that doesn't stop them from trying 🙂

    But there are people out there who want this type of uber-web app, or at least, someone thinks so. I guess this is why we keep seeing convergence of functionality.

    Don't tell me you prefer Outlook for PIM.


  3. Haha, sorry to say but I do!

    When I'm in GMail and click on calendar, why does it spawn a new tab/window? At least clicking on contacts or tasks works as I would expect. I want the calendar to open up within GMail just like it does with contacts or tasks. Doesn't this make sense? Oh, and add notepad functionality that works the same way as well. What do you think about this?

    Maybe it's indicative of a culture problem within Google. They're more excited about the mail aspect of GMail and less interested it being a good PIM. Why do you like GMail as a PIM? Why do you like it better than Outlook?

    I know some people want the uber-PIM app. I think I'd like to see how they use it and better understand the use cases. I'd also like to see if they could do the same thing in iGoogle and compare their experiences between the two platforms.

    Or am I being anal-retentive here?

  4. Yeah, integration between Google properties is a bit spotty, but you could build your own gadget, or find one that does what you want. Not so with Outlook, at least until the next version (maybe) and an upgrade fee.

    IGoogle is a nice way to do that too, but I prefer GMail b/c mail is the center of that universe for me.

    I like everything better than Outlook, even snail mail.

  5. Bravo great post ( err that means, I agree 😉 ).

    Email still remains at the center of my professional and personal life. Having that as a platform makes six billion times more sense to me compared to s'thing like f8.

    I think we should give credit to where it is due. Buchheit completely turned around our expectations about email. I remember jotting things down as the search in Outlook sucked so bad. Now, after having uploaded all my big pst files, it just takes me max a minute to find what I want.

    Admittedly, I am not a big user of other featuers of a PIM, except calendar and that too because I am forced to. But there, Outlook/Exchange seems to score.

    Jake – just curious, u use OCS among u guys ? I sorta liked some of its features when in Orcl but traction in market has not still been achieved it seems.

  6. My favourite Gmail feature is that it can work with any POP3 e-mail address, so I can have a professional-looking @mycompany e-mail address which Gmail picks up for me. (Actually, my Gmail account imports messages from three other POP3 accounts with different providers.)

    I like the chat and the e-mail labels and the filters, but I'm not a big user of their other features. And I don't know anyone in the USA who I'd want to be texting anyway, so this new release is little use to me. And besides, allows me to send 250 free texts every month. And I can set up groups there, to text multiple people at once. Vodaphone Ireland allows 300 free texts a month from their website, but only to Irish numbers. I prefer O2.


  7. Thanks for reminding me about search. Good email search is a hugely valuable, underrated feature of GMail, as you mention.

    I'm not a huge consumer of the other stuff GMail offers, but I like that I could use if I wanted, e.g. if I'm on a computer that's not my own checking email, I have IM and Twitter without any additional cookies.

    We do use OCS and Beehive. I read mail with TBird, and use Google Desktop for search; TBird's search has improved, but it's still too slow for me.

  8. I've grown pretty accustomed to the web interface, so POP is a nice-to-have that I use on my iPhone Mail, but no where else.

    I like the web version too because it's also a showcase for how to do AJAX really well, without losing speed or overdoing it.

    As for texting, the iPhone plan has a bunch of texts in it, and I've no idea how many I use, but I don't think I go over the allotment. Anyway, SMS is another nice-to-have that I'll probably use a few times; it does beat touch-typing on the iPhone though.

  9. No, I don't use POP3 to pick up Gmail e-mail; I use Gmail to pick up e-mail sent to other POP3 accounts.

    When you send a message to it arrives in the mycompany inbox. Gmail then checks that inbox and pulls all the messages therein into my Gmail inbox. In fact, messages sent to my Gmail address or to three other standard POP3 e-mail addresses I own, all end up in my Gmail inbox.

    And I can also use Gmail to send from those addresses. I can even set up one of them as my default sending address, if I wish.

    Very sweet.

    Gmail > Settings > Accounts > Get mail from other accounts


  10. Got it. Personally, I've never been a user of consolidated inboxes. When web mail (Excite or Yahoo) first introduced POP3/IMAP back in the day, I thought it would be great to have all my mail in a single client, work and personal.

    It just confused me, and spam filters were non-existent back then. So, I've never gone back; I actually like having inboxes for different purposes.

    But, it's a cool feature, and you definitely have the right use case for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.