It has been discussed on many places, but since a month or so, GMail has received a new GUI. Nothing really earth shattering, if you ask me, but it shows that Google is taking the remarks serious. Most ‘industry watchers’ seem to think that this is one of the first steps in the process of getting GMail to be Google Gears compatible.
When you’re not sure about what Google Gears is, think of it as a dump of part of the internet on your machine, for those moments when you’re not connected to the ‘net. It is similar to Adobe AIR in many respects. These types of web services would be available everywhere, anytime, thus starting to make inroads in the turf of the desktop application market. Until now, that has been the major selling point for desktop applications : Microsoft engineers complaining “but what if you don’t have a network connection”?
I haven’t tried the Gears platform yet, but it’s on my todo list. I fear however, that most of the applications nowadays aren’t suited for disconnected operation. No use for Digg if it can’t do what it does, and that’s getting usage statistics from the internet. So I’ll try Gears and AIR, but I’ll remain skeptical.
Most of the new technologies are for the users of the Google interface in English only. I understand that’s a way of segmenting your audience, but it’s sad you have to live in English (knowing there is a perfectly good alternative environment in your native language) because you need or want the latest features that only that English version provides.
The selling point for me has been IMAP connection until now. Now you don’t have to juggle with several pc’s and invent complicated update tricks when you want to be able to read and write mail using Thunderbird or some other ‘fat’ mail program on your desktop. At one point, I was using 3 computers, and I had a fragmented view of the mails I recieved, as every PC had his share of the inbox. IMAP solves that riddle in the most straightforward way possible, and most mail programs provide the technology.
Some complaints remain. The change to the new interface hasn’t been smooth as silk for everybody. Some People complained about having to wait more than 30 minutes before they got access to their inbox, others about losing mail messages temporarily, the list is wel documented elsewhere. Just Google for it ;-).
One weakness that Google has with it’s ever enlarging offering of applications, is that they aren’t integrated. That isn’t a real shock, as most of the applications were bought from somewhere before they were given the Google Interface treatment. A glaring example (and one that keeps bugging me) is the fact that you can’t receive iCal or vCal invitations in your mail, and add them to your Google Calendar from your mail message in Gmail. There is no easy way to make those 2 applications behave well with each other.
On other sides, there is a surprising level of integration. Google Talk, the Jabber-based Messaging software, is tightly integrated within the GMail interface. You can see whether a contact of yours is online at that moment, and the conversations are even stored as if it were mail messages sent between you.
That is the kind of integration that will make the Google offering a true winner. At the moment, Google is very popular with the more tech-savy crowd, while Hotmail and Yahoo are much larger in terms of mailboxes. If Google is ever to become the clear winner in terms of offering, it will need to offer an experience that surpasses the one people expect on a modern desktop (be it Windows Vista, Mac OSX or Linux GNOME/KDE): fully integrated, enabling people to do more with less effort. Until then, there is a long way to go I’m afraid.