Google's GMail product manager: 'User data should never be held hostage'

Summary:Last week, while in California, I made the rounds, capturing on video as many interviews as I could with interesting people that would be fun to hear from. One of those was Google Gmail product manager Keith Coleman who, in the attached video, gives us a status update on where Gmail has been, where it's at, and where it's going (showing us a thing or two in the current user interface along the way).

Last week, while in California, I made the rounds, capturing on video as many interviews as I could with interesting people that would be fun to hear from. One of those was Google Gmail product manager Keith Coleman who, in the attached video, gives us a status update on where Gmail has been, where it's at, and where it's going (showing us a thing or two in the current user interface along the way). If there were two things that stood out to me in the discussion, it was (1) how a complete rebuild of the Javascript engine was needed (and completed) in order for Gmail to take some of its next evolutionary steps and (2) how strongly Google feels about a user's data (like his/her e-mail) -- strongly enough that even though Gmail is an advertising-supported Web service, that the company has no qualms about letting users have access to it through user clients (Outlook, Thunderbird, BlackBerries, iPhones, etc.) to which that advertising never flows.

The recent addition of IMAP support demonstrates that philosophy in spades. Normally, when third party clients are used as a front-end to an e-mail service like Gmail, it is done through a protocol known as POP3. But POP3 is extremely limited in what it can do. For example, if you receive a Gmail e-mail into your copy of Outlook and file that e-mail into a folder, your Gmail account remains oblivious to that organizational context. That e-mail may reside in a folder in your Outlook, but it stays in the inbox on Gmail.

Although Gmail's full support of IMAP is limited to certain clients (as far as mobile is concerned, only Apple's iPhone is "officially supported"), IMAP support is what makes it possible for mail items that are filed into certain folders on the client side to be automatically tagged with a label on the Gmail side. Today, Gmail eschews folders in favor of what are referred to as "labels" (considered by many to be "tags"). That said, I'm relatively certain we'll see folders pretty soon in Gmail. In the interview, Coleman says the company is hoping to add foldering capabilities soon -- capabilities that would include the ability to drag and drop emails from the inbox to a folder. According to an entry on the official Gmail blog regarding colored labels (mentioned below):

We actually kinda like folders. In fact, we're doing some work to add some folder-y-ish functionality. Stay tuned.

Going back to the broader discussion of IMAP, enhancing client-side functionality with something as powerful as IMAP when the client-side essentially strips Google of its ability to contextually serve advertisements onto the e-mail page does speak highly of Google's willingness to set users' data free.

According to Coleman:

One of Google's core philosophies is that user data should never be held hostage. We want people to be able to take their data and do whatever it is they want with it. This isn't something that's really standard for e-mail services. Particularly Web mail services that rely on ad revenue. There's a risk if you let people get their mail in Outlook or some other client that they'll stop using the Web interface and they'll end up just reading their mail in a desktop client. We believe that if we give users the best possible product and if we create a good Web interface, and let them use their data in these clients like Outlook or like their BlackBerry, that they'll overall have a better experience and be happier with the product. So, we've made a point throughout Gmail's history to give people this freedom with their data.

We launched POP access back in 2004 which lets users read their mail in these clients and then just recently, we launched IMAP [support] which is a lot like POP except it keeps your data in synch no matter where you are. Let's say you're reading your mail in Outook and you read a message and when you go back to go back to your Gmail, you want that message to [to be marked as having been] read there as well. That works with IMAP. With POP that doesn't work.

Regarding the updates to the underlying Javascript engine, Coleman talks about how, as a result of those changes, not only has the Gmail team been able to add eight new features in as many weeks (colored labels [mentioned above], keyboard shortcuts, instantly opening e-mails [via prefetching], integration of AOL Instant Messaging, group chat, etc.), but about how the pace of change will be very fast which means a great many more enhancements (barring foldering capabilities, none of which Coleman would let slip in the interview) are coming Gmail's way (some experimental, some not). However, one feature that's here now, that Coleman did slip-in, is that the storage limit for users of Gmail currently exceeds 5 gigabytes.

One downside to all this upside news is that, for users of the Google Apps-based version of Gmail (the one that organizations would subscribe to), many of the features being rolled out to the larger Gmail population -- for example, prefetching and colored labels -- are not yet available (I tested this and was disappointed to see that, as a Google Apps, some of these very cool and useful features didn't work for me). Off camera, and via e-mail, Coleman confirmed this and said that the reason is that the new Javascript engine hasn't yet been introduced to the Google Apps-based users of Gmail. Wrote Coleman:

Colored labels are currently only available on the version of Gmail that uses the new Javascript implementation. The new Javascript is currently live for Gmail accounts on Firefox, IE7 and Safari 3, and we're actively working to launch it for Google Apps accounts and IE6....As with colored labels, you'll see the speed improvements [from prefetching] once we roll out the new [Javascript] to Google Apps accounts.

Finally, as we were packing our video gear up, I asked Coleman why Google still refers to Gmail's status as being "beta." After all, the service has been running since 2004. After a bit of joking around about this, Coleman mentioned that the company would like to stabilize a few more of Gmail's features before officially declaring the beta program over. Although he made no promises, from what I heard, it sounded like that too could be expected relatively soon -- probably sometime in 2008.

Topics: Browser, Collaboration, Google, Open Source

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.