Gmail: Is It Too Easy to Use Now? //

The answer, of course, is “yes…” and it’s getting more perfect with each passing minute*. *The frequency with which new features are added… or so it seems.

I, along with many others, began using Gmail as soon as it debuted in April of 2004. (Gmail will be 5 years old in about a month. Crazy.) However, I’ve since kept Gmail.com as a backup email client and I’ve continued to use Outlook as my primary. Why? The main reason is because I like having all of my email locally accessible in case of a Comcast outage. (Which used to be much more frequent.)

Having said that, if you have to choose between desktop email clients for the PC, Outlook is, by far, superior to any other. The new Postbox is okay but lacks key functionality (like, for instance, a calendar). Mozilla’s Thunderbird is okay but there’s so much configuration required to get it to act the way I want it to… and I reformat my PC about every 5-6 months. Just too much work.

Over the last six months, however, I’ve come to look past the offline advantage given the number of additional, invaluable features that have sprung up in Gmail Labs. (Labs, in case you’re unaware or have never been interested enough to read more about them, are Google Engineer-designed bits of functionality designed to interact with Gmail.com.) Labs have now made Gmail so easy-to-use that I’ve found myself unwilling to open the comparatively-archaic Outlook. (And I’m actually a pretty big fan of Outlook. For the most part, it’s a well-oiled machine.)

One of the more recent features to be introduced to Gmail is the new “Move to” and “Label as” drop-down menus. Combined with the ever-popular keyboard shortcuts, these menus have made message filing brilliantly simple and something I’ve been unable to live without given the ever-increasing amount of messages with which I’m presented on any given day.

As an example, let’s say you’re reading a message in Gmail and you know A) that you no longer want to keep this in your inbox and B) which labels (i.e., keywords) you want to assign to this message. You can now do all of the above without ever touching the mouse. Just hit “L” to bring up the Labels drop-down menu, start typing until the label you want to apply is highlighted (it’s find-as-you-type; the best type of search), hit enter and the label is assigned for future reference/searching. Repeat the process for multiple labels. Then, when you’re ready to move it from your inbox to a separate “folder,” hit “V” and start typing the location name until it’s higlighted; then hit enter. Alternatively, once you’ve entered the appropriate labels, you can just hit “E” to archive the message.

Comparatively speaking, moving messages in Outlook, if you’ve got a rather lengthy folder list like myself, is a painfully-laborious process. Thus, my messages in Outlook never got filed because it took far too long and I’ve got better things to do with my time. (Hulu, anyone?) Outlook forces the drag-and-drop process… even in versions as late as Outlook 2007. So, the moving process for, say, 10 different messages that would have taken upwards of a minute or more in Outlook now takes about 8 seconds in Gmail.

Additionally, you can now replace pretty much any time-saving technique that once was offered in Outlook with some of the new Gmail Labs features. For instance, Gmail Offline(using Google Gears) replaces my need to have a desktop email client in case of a “tubes” outage. “Quick Links” takes the place of “Favorite Folders” in Outlook. “Superstars” takes the place of Outlook’s enhanced item flagging. “Canned Responses” can now, for the most part, substitute for the increasingly-popular “Quick Parts” in Outlook 2007.

Then, of course, there are the Labs features for which Outlook doesn’t even have comparable features… things like embedded chat (it’s 2009, Microsoft – put a friggin’ multi-protocol IM client in Outlook already), “Location in Signature,” “Forgotten Attachment Detector,” “Custom Keyboard Shortcuts,” “Mouse Gestures,” “Random Signature,” among others. In addition, you can use the “Right-Side Labels” and “Navbar Drag-and-Drop” options to just about completely arrange your workspace. It’s not nearly as easy (or comprehensive) to do so in Microsoft’s client.

So, I stand before you as a user now unwilling to open Outlook (at home) more than once per week as well as someone who’s becoming increasingly-unwilling to convince other users, both business and personal, that they need to shell out money for Microsoft Outlook.

Just as an aside, I’ve always loved Gmail and, ever since day one – literally, I’ve always admired how easy it was to manage messages within… I’ve just always placed guaranteed offline access at the top of the totem pole of necessary features when it comes to my email. Gmail has finally managed to outweigh that perk.
I honestly think Microsoft can, among users like myself, emerge the victor if the next version of Outlook, currently dubbed Outlook 14 – a beta of which we should most likely see within a few months, catches up with the times and enables us to easily deal with the abundance of email that we all have while simultaneously allowing us to manage other necessary forms of electronic communication. (Think instant messaging, Twitter, etc.)

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