Business-like, isn't he?



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    Google’s Gmail gets webmail service right

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business in Vancouver  October 10-16, 2006; issue 885

    High Tech Office

    Most readers of this column bounce between several computers: one at work, another at home; a desktop and a laptop; one at a hotel business centre when you didn’t bring the laptop.

    This summer, I did all that and then some. I added three versions of Linux and a prerelease of Windows Vista into my usual mix of Windows XP and Mac OS X systems. While I could access my documents over the network, keeping e-mail and calendar information in synch might have proved more of a challenge.

    In the past, when on a brief trip, I made use of my ISP’s webmail service, which gave me access to my e-mail from any web browser. But that service is designed for limited, light use. With limits of 100 MB of storage and 3,000 total messages, it would fill up with a week or two’s use.

    Instead, I relied on Google’s Gmail service. When Google first announced this service two years ago, the promised one gigabyte of free e-mail storage for each user created a stir and forced competitors like Yahoo Mail and Hotmail to increase what they offered their users. Since then, Gmail’s storage limits have continued to grow; it continues to outpace the competition, promising each user 2,768 MB (2.7 GB) of message space.

    The large amount of storage was welcome, but if you’re used to more traditional webmail services or e-mail software like Outlook or Eudora, Gmail may seem quirky. Initially, for instance, the option to delete messages was tucked out of sight. Apparently, Google felt that having lots of storage meant no one should ever need to delete anything. More recently a Delete button has appeared next to a Report Spam button.

    There’s no option to create folders or mailboxes to organize mail messages. Instead, users can create labels and apply them to messages. Search experts Google makes it easy to search messages by creator or content, which arguably is more convenient than organizing by folder.

    A very nice feature: messages group themselves by message subject. opening a reply from, say, Business in Vancouver editor Timothy Renshaw, shows the multiple messages of that online conversation all neatly stacked together.

    Also nice: Gmail’s contact list can import (and export) contacts in the widely used CSV (comma separated values) format, which let me copy my stored 700 names and addresses online. And when composing a message, I rarely need to access that contact list: start to type a first name and up pops up a list of everyone I know (or my Inbox) with that name. Less nice: the contacts are listed alphabetically by first name; it’s faster to type in a search box than scroll my long list.

    As part of its expanding set of web-based applications, Google has recently added a handy online calendar service.

    Gmail is ad-supported. Like Google’s search results, received e-mail (but not sent messages) display with a set of relatively unobtrusive ads along the side. Some may feel uneasy about having Google host their e-mail, contact list or calendar. I’m perhaps more trusting. In any event, I’ve gotten used to these services’ quirks and am comfortable relying on them full-time to replace applications residing on a single computer’s hard drive.

    Like many Google services, Gmail seems to be in permanent beta-testing status. Officially it is not open to the public. Instead, wanna-be users need to be “invited” by a current user. I can invite about 100 people so drop me a line if you want to give it a try.

    Alternatively, Google competitor Yahoo has a new beta-version of its free webmail service that offers an interface much more like traditional e-mail software, complete with drag and drop of messages into user-customized mailboxes. And it’s open for anyone to join.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan