What is wrong with GMail

Disclaimer first: I really like GMail. Since I started using it (about year ago), I learned to appreciate the beautiful simplicity and elegance of the Web interface. And since I switched completely to GMail as foundation of all my email systems (about November 2006), I have managed to simplify most of my email related chores. But let’s face it – GMail is far from perfect. Here is list of the annoyances and missing features that I have collected:

POP access.
It is there. It is free. It works. (Hey, Yahoo! – paying attention: available and free). So what is the catch ? It is single client POP solution only. As soon you download the email with ANY POP client, neither of other clients will see this email message as new and download it. This solution works for those who (as myself) use Web interface only and have single, permanently running POP email client (e.g. Thunderbird) just to keep backup copy of all email. For this purpose, it works perfectly – and you will appreciate that GMail will send to POP client even the Sent emails, not only received. If you are, on the other hand, using simultaneously a notebook with Outlook, desktop with another POP client AND Smartphone and would like to have all your emails downloaded on all of them all the time, you are out of luck.

Even with the first “backup only” scenario, I do run into troubles from time to time: if my “backup client” on desktop stops working (either machine is down or the Thunderbird hangs) , and I start Mail.app on the Macbook – “wroooom” – it downloads all new emails without merc, which means they will never be included as part of my backup (unless you manually transfer them, which is major P.I.T.A)

Last issue with POP access is tagging within downloaded emails: none. Regardless how much time you have spent properly labeling your emails, none of it will ever make it to POP client. Labels are Web Only

What would be the fix ? For downloading, the right approach would be clearly – let POP client decide which emails are “new” in its context. It certainly can be done, because this is the mode in which Rogers-Yahoo! operates. I am not sure whether there is simple solution for the labels download – the problem with labelled email is that most client support only folders and emails can be multi-labelled, which makes it position in folder hierarchy problematic.

According the official mantra, search is better than sort. It may be true, most of the time. I have been often in situation, where I would prefer the sorting. For example by name or by date sent. Or even subject. One feature that I always liked about Outlook was the default “grouping” of emails by time: Today, Yesterday, Week Ago etc. Occasionally, it is also useful to sort by attachment size.

Contact Management
This is, IMHO the weakest point of GMail. The contacts management’s UI is far from good. It takes too many clicks to do changes and some simple things are just too frigging hard/impossible:  try for example “merge” several email addresses you have collected for the same person, or edit multiple records. I was thinking about using external application to maintain contact list, but GMail does not really synchronize with anything – all you can do is export and import CSV files. The solution would be very simple: just provide the public API for the address book – and the community will take care of the rest.

This very strong, unique feature of GMail works very well, but I see several areas where it could be improved:

  • allow time sensitive labels – e.g. “last 3 days” label, that would display different content based on expression
  • allow hierarchical labels e.g. work->project1, work->project2 – everything labelled by either project1 or project2 would automatically have the label work as well
  • allow visual attributes to labels – similar as colors in Finder. If label has assigned color, use it as background in email list
  • allow drag and drop of selected messages to labels
  • offer tag-cloud as alternative rendering to linear list
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    6 Responses to What is wrong with GMail

    1. Jason says:

      Do you suppose it ‘s possible to use Greasemonkey scripts to create buttons for the time groupings (“Last Week”, “Last Month”, “Today”, etc.)? The buttons, when clicked, could perform a search of your email.

      (I don’t know the programming needed but the logic might look something like this:)

      -Click “Received Last 3 Days” (button added by GM script)
      -the script looks at your computer’s system time for the date
      -it calculates values for TODAY and 3DAYSAGO
      -it then inputs a search of your mail using something like

      after:3DAYSGO before:TODAY

      where TODAY and 3DAYSAGO are dates in DD/MM/YYYY format.

      It seems that this approach could be modified for a variety of different grouping and sorting needs.

    2. Miro says:

      That may very likely work, but it is still just a hack … Greasemonkey is amazing piece of software, but somehow the idea of re-parsing the generated HTML (which already contains lots of script code) and modify it on the fly in the browser by a script that makes it even more dynamic, makes me uncomfortable.

      I would prefer some more serverside-ish solution. Thanks for the idea, though – if Google will not do anything, I will give it a try. Unfortunately, fixing the addressbook with Greasemonkey would likely not work 😦

    3. Sean says:

      Regarding the issue with only one POP client seeing/downloading the emails, this is from the Gmail help:
      – – – – – – – – –

      How should I use POP on mobile or multiple devices?

      If you’re accessing your Gmail using POP from multiple clients, Gmail’s recent mode makes sure that all messages are made available to each client, rather than only to the first client to access new mail.

      Recent mode fetches the last 30 days of mail, regardless of whether it’s been sent to another POP client already.

      If you sign in to Gmail using your Blackberry, you’re signed in to recent mode automatically. For all other POP clients, replace ‘username@gmail.com’ in your POP client settings with ‘recent:username@gmail.com’.

    4. Dave says:

      This gmail recent feature seems to have solved most of the issues surrounding accessing my e-mail on a mobile device. But it doesn’t address the “first to POP” issue. In other words, if my mobile device fetches the e-mail first, my desktop isn’t able to get it.

      If I change my desktop to also use the recent mode, then it seems to copy me on all e-mails that I send which clutters my inbox. Anybody find a solution to this? It’s surprising that something so basic hasn’t apparently been solved by these guys yet.

    5. Greg says:

      The “recent:” tag, added to the front of your user name, will cause all email that was received in the last 30 days to be re-downloaded, but only the first time. Once downloaded, it will not re-download old mail, only mail that hasn’t previously been downloaded in that application. So the first time you use it, it is a pain because of the duplicates in one or more programs/computers.

      And if you use the web interface to send an email, the next time you download messages using POP, you will also get a copy of the sent message in your inbox. This feature may be something good or bad, depending on how you prefer to deal with email.

      I also discovered another thing using the “recent:” tag. For those users that primarily use POP access to gmail/Google Apps, if you sent yourself an email, it was never delivered. But with the recent tag enabled, those messages will be downloaded.

      At least, that has been my experience in the short time I’ve been looking at this. For a non-profit I support, I am looking at moving their email to Google Apps, so am checking out as many things as I can think of.

    6. Rob Brooks says:

      Gmail is screwed up, contacts are gone, and im getting killed by people for not respond to email I NEVER GOT!
      they need to fix it. now. or im changing my business card to hotmail
      ROB Brooks


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