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Business in Vancouver

Gmail innovations could help cut communications costs and improve company email efficiency

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Business in Vancouver September 28-October 4, 2010 issue #1092 High Tech Office column

Google software developers are encouraged to take part in what the company calls “innovation time off,” spending a percentage of their workweek on projects of their own choosing.

Google offerings such as Gmail, Google News and AdSense arose from this program. Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice-president of search products and user experience, suggested that half of the company’s recent product launches were the results of ideas generated during innovation time off.

Users of Google’s Gmail webmail service were recently offered two new optional features. First off the mark, the company added voice chat – and phone calls – to Gmail. Users logging in got a pop-up message cheerfully proclaiming, “New! Make phone calls from Gmail.”
Enabling the service required downloading and installing a browser plug-in, after which a call phone button appears in the left-hand column.

Though building on Google’s existing U.S.-only Google Voice service, Canadian Gmail users have also been offered the Gmail add-in. Calls made to phone numbers in the U.S. and Canada are free – at least through the end of 2010. International calls cost, but rates are as low as $0.02 a minute – and users start with a $0.10 credit.

In my tests – and I was one of the reported million people making calls on the first day the service was offered – call quality was pretty good, considering I was sitting at a computer using the built-in microphone and speakers. It was certainly on a par with dedicated services like Skype. Nicely, it integrates with my Gmail contact list, letting me phone a contact by just starting to type the name.

Unlike Skype, however, which offers service on iPads and a variety of smartphones, these new Gmail phone calls can be made only from a desktop, laptop or netbook computer. No mobile-device support, at least not yet. You need a Google voice account to receive incoming calls – so no Canadians need apply. This limits its usefulness. I’m not sure I’ll use it often, but as a cheap way to make long-distance calls (from a computer) it may have its uses.

Google cites research claiming that on average, a business user gets and sends 110 email messages each day. Managing email is, for many people, a growing part of the workday.

Gmail does a good job filtering out spam – making an educated guess about what email messages I would rather not see in my Inbox. Another recent Gmail add-on tries to do the opposite: predict what messages will be most important to me.

Again, what Google is calling “priority inbox” popped up as a new option for Gmail users. Once accepted, the software peeks at messages in your inbox and guesses which ones might be more important to you; you’re asked to confirm or change its choices.
 Afterward, new mail messages Google hopes you’ll consider more important show up at the top of the list; the rest appear down below.
Among the data it considers: if you’ve ever emailed someone or replied to an email from that contact their future messages are prioritized. If it guesses wrong, you can correct it – plus and minus buttons let you indicate whether a message is more or less important to you.

Even without training, it seems to be doing a pretty good job. In general, email from people takes priority over newsletters and sales pitches. When a top-level message has been read, it drops down into the regular inbox, listed as normal in chronological order.
Clicking the “inbox” link on the left brings back the standard, non-sorted list of all messages; clicking “priority inbox” restores that view.

Google claims that priority inbox will make it easier for users to wade through mountains of email. Google product manager Rajen Sheth told PC Magazine that testers spent 6% less time managing their inboxes. While this may seem insignificant, he claimed it added up to “over a week of additional time each year.”

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