First impressions of gmail – maybe the end of desktop mail for me

Today I found out that gmail supports checking and storing POP3 mail and it made me wonder if I even need a desktop email client any more. It has everything I use in Thunderbird (sorting, filtering, searching, address book) with the big advantage of being on the network and therefore accessible from any computer.

So for the next few weeks I’m going to do an experiment and see whether I can live without Thunderbird. To prove my seriousness, I even deleted my little envelope life line from the task bar:
Helen's task bar

Helen gushes over the gmail interface

I have to say I’m seriously impressed by the Google interfaces I’ve been playing with lately. Google Analytics beats the pants off the stats package installed on my hosting, Google reader stole my rss feeds from bloglines and gmail is no different. Just look at that pretty face:

Gmail seems to have a million little touches to make your life a little eaiser. The threading makes it dead easy to follow a conversation. The setup screen inferred my mail server from my email address and I barely had to type anything more into the dialog. I love the way the reply form just appears at the bottom of the email, so I can look at the original email while I reply. The search is also great! I pop “Kathy” in the single search box at the top of the page in gmail and it brings me back all the conversations between me and my friend Kathy. I don’t have to think about where I might have filed the email (if I even managed to put it in the place I meant) or what field might have her name in.

What impresses me most is that it doesn’t look at all like a desktop email client. They’ve been really experimental with it. It feels right in the browser. It looks like and feels like a webpage and I don’t think that the functionality suffers at all for it.

The point – yes there is a point

The point isn’t really that gmail or Thunderbird is better. The point is that from my first impressions gmail seems like it’s good enough that I might not need a desktop email client any more. That means I can have all the benefits of the network (like portability, having my stuff somewhere quite safe – providing I trust google, not having to copy all my email to the server every time I get sick of vista) without losing too much important functionality. To someone who travels and has multiple computers and often checks email away from the mothership that’s a big deal. For someone who’s a web developer who’s never even been tempted to look for a mail client that wasn’t on the desktop (I must be about the last person in the world to switch to webmail), that’s a very interesting development.

For the most part of the ten years the computer without the network has been just a box. It’s the other people that it helps me connect to that makes it interesting. Playing games is about the only thing I’ll do with it disconnected and even doing that alone is getting rarer.

The thing that excites me most about applications like gmail is that it’s a little glimpse of the future. It’s web apps that are comfortable being web apps and don’t try to act like the desktop (haha! A rant for another time). That excites me because web applications have other people built in by default. You have to decide to connect people to other people when you build a desktop application. A web application you almost have to decide not to.

I wonder if we really will see other desktop apps fall victim to the browser in the future. I’ve always been pretty sceptical about the idea of all apps moving into the browser. What I really hope will happen is that more apps will bring the network and all the people connected to it to my machine no matter whether they’re desktop, web apps or something that I’ve not even heard of.

Posted on 24 Apr 08 by Helen Emerson (last updated on 24 Apr 08).
Filed under Web development