Gmail: Making Email Fun Again

Recently, I finally received an invitation into that secret world known as Gmail, or Google Mail. For those of you who have been hiding from technology news this year, it’s Google’s foray into web-based email. One of the reasons for its popularity is that it’s “by invitation only,” and invitations were very difficult to come by, at least at first. Only well-known techie celebreties received them at first, and they could only invite others on an occasional basis.

It was a coup for viral marketing: the technology was so well-received and talked-about on news and review sites that everybody dreamed of becoming one of the “elite few” to own an account. Besides some interesting ways to manage your email (basically, they are threaded to group both sent and received mail together, like a forum), Google also gave you a full gigabyte of storage (huge, in email terms), access to legendary Google search mechanisms to search and group your messages, and (most important of all) a chance to actually get yourname@gmail.com, as opposed to douglasjohnston2641isalinuxgeek2@hotmail.com. Accounts were being sold off on eBay for as much as $500 US ($234,534.97 Canadian), and swap sites popped up overnight to see what people had to offer in exchange for one. It wasn’t unusual to find on barter such things as iPods, website development, copies of Microsoft Office, nude pictures of wives and, shall we say, certain favours, depending on your locale.

It’s changed lately: it seems every techie and his pet python have accounts to give away, and so it is lately that I finally found the heart-stopping invitation in my inbox. Almost immediately, I received the notification that I could give away six more invites, and so my friends were brought into the fray.

I haven’t had this much fun with email in years. Is it that I’m finally tasting the forbidden fruit? Perhaps, but it goes deeper than that. Gmail is actually an effortless and enjoyable way to handle your email.

I mentioned that the mail is handled through threads, much like a forum: Gmail calls this “Conversations.” While threaded message handling is nothing new, Gmail takes it a step further by bringing everything together on on page, including your sent messages, and hides all the frequently-requoted cruft that makes long threads so difficult to get through (you can unhide them with a mouse click). At any point in the conversation, you can click on the Reply or Forward link at the base of a message, and a little box opens beneath it. Type in your message, press Send, and it’s done. Like I said, effortless. If conversations become too long, Gmail will compress several of the older messages together so you only see the most recent ones, unless you want to Expand All again.

Other little time-savers further involve getting rid of the complexities and information overload that comes with email. For example, you don’t see full headers (unless you want expand them with a mouse click): you see headers like “Rick Norman to me – Sept. 2 (2 days ago)”, which tells me everything I need to know at a glance. Simple keystrokes can be used to function just like a real mail client, too. J and K move your little selection arrow up and down, N and P move through conversations, X will select an item, ENTER will jump into it: the *nix-luvin’ folks at Google chose keystrokes that seem very natural to me.

For the first time since my old UNIX terminal days nearly 20 years ago (eek!), email no longer seems like a chore. In fact, I constantly watch my Gmail Notifier in Firefox, hoping for another message so I have an excuse to use it again. And for something that is normally so much of my daily grind that it wears me down, finding an interest in it again is a good thing.

So watch those inboxes for invites, and keep an eye on the tech news to see when Gmail opens up to the general public (soon, is my guess). In the meantime, check out the unofficial Gmail FAQ for more information about this really cool service.

In case you want to email me at my new address, you can reach me at my full name (see my domain name), without periods, at gmail.com. (Sorry for being cryptic: I want to avoid being automatically spammed on this account as long as possible.)

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