Time to abandon Gmail?

Summary:Last year Gmail passed Hotmail to become the world's most popular email service. But that was then.

David Braue

David Braue

Yes

or

No

Ken Hess

Ken Hess

Best Argument: No

34%
66%

Audience Favored: No (66%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Gmail is the best of its time. The thing is: its time was 2009

David Braue: Gmail was born to outshine Yahoo! Mail and Microsoft Hotmail. Superlative spam catching, innovations like Gmail Labs and the high-value (and free) Google Apps bundle embodied Google’s debonair anti-establishmentarianism – and made us forget its sole purpose in life was to help Google sell more ads.

Companies standardizing on Gmail – many of which were SMEs without the budget for Microsoft Exchange – found themselves hand-holding employees on an unfamiliar and unintuitive interface built around message tags, archiving and conversation view.

Developers have struggled  to keep up with changes to Gmail’s poorly-defined and regularly-changing APIs, while Google’s IMAP and POP3 never worked perfectly. Google restricted Exchange ActiveSync access ; iOS Mail still can’t deal with Gmail’s ability to archive messages or delete them; and Apple’s Mavericks version of Mail couldn’t speak properly to Gmail at all .

In its four years of life, Gmail has changed from embodying anti-Microsoft panache to being a gateway drug for Google’s online services. Google sucks you in with Gmail, then keeps you with subtle technical incompatibilities and ever-more-creative ways of harvesting your private communications to sell ads.

Meanwhile, its interface is as stale and frustrating as ever. Gmail may have been impressive nine years ago, but these days it’s being outdone by friendlier and more compatible alternatives like Outlook.com  that merit consideration like never before.

 

What's Hot on ZDNet

It's got everything you need -- and it's simple to use

Ken Hess: As much as technology analysts and bloggers like to beat up on Google, there's no reason to abandon Gmail. Gmail isn't perfect but it is close to being so. I've used it since it was in early beta and I'd be hard-pressed to find something that even comes close. Sure, I used to miss folders but now I find that I don't need them cluttering up my navigation window.
 
And who really remembers where you put an email two or three years ago? You still have to search for it. Google knows search and searching your email is very easy to do. GMail is available on any platform via apps or browser, so there's no need to use a heavy client.
 
Gmail, for personal use, is also free. It provides plenty of space that grows every day. It's secure and supports IMAP and POP3 incoming mail protocols. It has an excellent SPAM filter. In fact, I only have to see an errant email about once a month that the filter doesn't catch. And it has some advanced features not found in any other mail application that I've used, such as the attachment sensor (That's what I call it).
 
The attachment sensor knows that you've referenced an attachment in your message but didn't attach it. It catches that and pops up a message asking you to confirm that you have no attachments. How many times have you sent an email without the attachment that you meant to send? You won't with Gmail.
 
With Gmail, you can do all the expected things with your online email account but one of the great advantages of Gmail is that it's integrated with Google's other applications such as Google Groups, Google Docs, YouTube, Google+, Gtalk, and more. You don't have to do anything special for that integration; it's just there.
 
You can highlight your important emails with various colors of stars or other icons so that you don't forget an important message. And now, GMail categorizes your incoming email, by default, as Notifications, Promotions, or regular Inbox.
 
In essence, Gmail is the mail application that goes where you do without hassle. It's simple to use and I don't see any reason to disconnect from it in favor of something else. At least, not until something much better comes along, and in almost ten years, I'm still waiting for that to happen.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome back

    It's time for this week's Great Debate. Are you ready?


    Posted by Jason Hiner

    All set

    I'm anxious to get started.

    David Braue

    I am for Yes

    Ready here

    Let's go.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Why is Gmail No. 1?

    Let's recap. Last year Gmail passed Hotmail to become the world's most popular email service. What were the factors that have made Gmail so popular?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Unlimited access

    ​Gmail does have its charms – in particular, its excellent spam filtering, its fast searching even through old messages, its snappy and interactive interface, and its ability to manage multiple email accounts within a custom domain name.

    And yet I doubt any of these were of value to what would have to be the largest group of Gmail users: spammers. They love how easy it is to set up new Gmail accounts; I know this because they write me using @gmail.com addresses all the time. If you were to only count Gmail users with pulses, I bet you’d have a far smaller number. But it doesn’t serve Google’s advertising rates sheet to talk about actual users with pulses.

    David Braue

    I am for Yes

    Let me count the ways

    Gmail offers a lot of advanced features for free that Hotmail and other free services don't. Email forwarding, aliasing, vacation responder, multiple email addresses from a single account, integrated calendaring, Google Docs, Google Drive, advanced Inbox rules, advanced SMTP setup, IMAP, labels, an advanced SPAM filter, flagging, and Chrome-specific plugins that make the Gmail experience even better.

    For example, with the Rapportive plugin, I can actually see the person who's emailed me and see his or her latest social media posts. Gmail is extremely easy to use and available on all platforms as an app or as a browser-based email client in Chrome.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Why does Gmail beat Hotmail and Yahoo mail

    Hotmail and Yahoo Mail were the services that lost out at Gmail's expense. What was it that cost them users?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    It's back to basics

    Hotmail had fewer features and an antiquated interface that is still struggling to catch up. Yahoo was a business in turmoil and failed to offer a fresh and useful interface for years; its latest effort has been a disaster .

    Neither one of them had Google’s underlying strengths in searching and organizing messages, among the most important things any email user needs. Google also gave Gmail a leg up by integrating it with Docs, Maps, Picasa, Google+ and its myriad other services; the end result has been a broad and deep service offering – suitable for businesses as well as consumers – that Microsoft is only now matching and Yahoo never will .

    David Braue

    I am for Yes

    More modern

    I have both a Hotmail and a Yahoo Mail account and Gmail is more "modern." I don't have to be stuck with a gmail.com address. I use my own domain address there: kenhess.com. I also have three or four other aliases for other websites that I own. And when someone sends me an email to one of those aliases, when I respond, the email originates from the alias automatically.

    Other free services such as Hotmail and Yahoo Mail aren't as professional. When someone sends me an email using a hotmail.com address, I assume it's SPAM. Same goes for a Yahoo Mail address. Gmail has a higher level of trust and professionalism, although, to be honest, it's so easy to use your own domain that I'm starting to suspect gmail.com addresses as SPAM too.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    ISP losses

    The other big loser in the mail game is the ISPs, as more and more users migrate away from traditional ISPs mailboxes to these free webmail. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Little competition

    Standardizing on a well-known and well-understood webmail platform may prove irresistible to users, but ISPs offer benefits that Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo will never match. For example, they offer in-country storage of messages. This is a big deal for many businesses in places like Australia , where new privacy laws will kick in next March and the data sovereignty issues  of cloud-hosted emai l makes many nervous.

    ISPs also offer better support for standards like Microsoft Exchange, won’t mine your email to make money selling ads, and offer a phone number to call if something goes horribly wrong. If Gmail and its ilk are the Twinkies of Web mail – delicious as long as you don’t think about how unhealthy they are – ISP-hosted email is the crème brulee.

    David Braue

    I am for Yes

    Reliability

    ISPs are historically bad at supporting email and email has become a critical function. Using myself as an example here, if I lose access to email, I'm basically down and can't be fully productive. Email is the new printing. It is essential to daily business continuity and ISPs unfortunately just don't have the expertise needed to keep an email service alive and healthy long-term.

    And ISPs see email as an annoyance. For the $5 per month, or whatever they charge, it isn't worth the hassle to deal with everyone calling for support. It's a service that's never paid for itself. I'm sure the ISPs are happy that their users use Gmail and other free services. So, it's a win-win situation for ISPs and users.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Recommendations

    Do you recommend your family and friends use webmail rather than ISP mailboxes? Why or why not, and what justifications do you give?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Makes me feel guilty

    I am as guilty of recommending webmail services as the next guy, if only because my family members are too technology-illiterate to even contemplate using ISP services and friends tend to just want something easy to use. Let’s face it: right or wrong, most people can’t be bothered learning the difference between POP3 and IMAP. But that doesn’t make it right: I know that each signup is feeding Google new content for its all-seeing, privacy-busting analysis engine. I can only hope they aren’t writing anything too salacious, to fly under the NSA’s radar.

    David Braue

    I am for Yes

    Yes!

    Yes, I do recommend it. I just setup a friend of mine with webmail and got him away from AOL's email. He now has a professional email address on Gmail that costs him nothing. He already had the domain and now he gets his email at that domain, hosted by Gmail.

    The justifications are all the ones I've given so far. Gmail has it all and has it at no charge. No hassle, very good uptimes, and available on all platforms are huge selling points.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Backlash

    Do you believe there is a potential backlash happening against Gmail, as ZDNet's Ed Bott and others have asserted recently?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Little privacy

    With Microsoft and Yahoo making new plays for email business and Gmail gaining notoriety for its egregious abuse of user privacy, there’s no question that many users are deciding that it’s time to consider alternatives. Who can blame them? Edward Snowden’s revelations about PRISM have made privacy a top-tier issue this year, and Google’s known reliance on compromising that privacy – along with its relatively closed design, poor Exchange support , decision to charge for premium features that were once free, difficult user interface, and sporadic outages   – are giving people reasons to consider alternatives such as Outlook.com .

    David Braue

    I am for Yes

    Gmail addiction

    I think such backlashes attract page views for media types. And I think secretly, they'll still use Gmail, when no one's looking. Personally, I can't wean myself off of Gmail. I've used it since you had to have an invitation to use it in 2003 or 2004. Ten years with the same email provider says something--especially when I could easily host my own email services as I've done in the past. I can't even compete with Gmail. It's that good.

    I've tried to wean myself off of it because of some of the issues that some have mentioned. In fact, I wrote Google several years ago and asked if they would implement folders. Tags seemed odd to me. These days, it doesn't bother me.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    OS X issues

    Do you think the recent compatibility issues with OS X Mavericks will take a long-term toll on Gmail?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Google's way

    Given Mavericks’ relatively low market share at this point, a few patchable problems   are hardly going to kill Gmail stone-dead. However, it does highlight the tightrope act that Gmail is perpetuating: despite years committed to making email a standards-based and secure method for exchanging methods, Apple’s Gmail problems show that Apple isn’t the only one forcing developers to do things Google’s way.

    David Braue

    I am for Yes

    No issues

    Funny you should ask. I'm using it on OS X Mavericks as I type this. No issues.

    So, I'm not sure what compatibility issues others have reported but I haven't seen them yet and I'm a very heavy user. I have Chrome open all day long (It's the only browser I use) with an ever-present Gmail tab and several others while I research information for articles and posts.

    Never an issue. I didn't even realize there were any issues with Mavericks and Gmail.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Togetherness

    When you look at Gmail today, what's keeping users on the service and what's keeps new users signing up?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    So many messages

    Inertia is a powerful force, and many Gmail users probably stay with the service because they have so many messages stored in the system that they can’t contemplate leaving. However, it’s not always that difficult to leave , particularly if you’re technical enough to understand and change how email is routed.

    Others are still joining Gmail because it has enough of a brand name to have become synonymous with the word ‘webmail’ in many users’ minds. They may not know, or may not care, about its egregious privacy abuses or be happy to volunteer their personal information as payment for the inarguable convenience of Gmail. Of course, people willingly watch ‘Big Brother’ too. That doesn’t mean it’s good for them.

    David Braue

    I am for Yes

    No problems

    As I've stated, it's the service. I've never had a problem with Gmail in the ten-ish years that I've used it. That's a pretty darn good track record--for me and for Gmail.

    What keeps people signing up is that they know that Google is an excellent company that provides personal and business services. It's easy to use, free, and very feature rich. That and a lot of people don't want to use Microsoft services. There's a lot of anti-Microsoft sentiment out there, there's a lot of anti-Google sentiment too and I think that users bounce between them. There's not much loyalty out there for these services. People will change for the smallest of issues.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Roadblocks

    What are the biggest drawbacks to Gmail?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    More issues than privacy

    It’s easy to point to its harvesting of personal information, which it uses to sell ads that are constantly waved in front of your face, as the worst problem with Gmail. Some people may even like that they get personalized, targeted ads – although they might like them less if they thought about how those ads were targeted.

    Yet there is much more to dislike about Gmail. Its interface is unlike any other mail program, which is good for some people but bad for people who aren’t used to conversation views, organizing messages using tags, and the like. It’s hard to get your messages out of Gmail if you want them, and Google is regularly changing the interface to suit its changing business – even to the point where it’s too much. Google’s latest “innovation”, for example, has put ads right there above your personal email messages.

    David Braue

    I am for Yes

    Folders

    I haven't found any significant ones, obviously, but if I had to pinpoint one that I've had, is folders. I've learned to live with tags but I think people would like to have folders. A lot of people see that as a shortcoming and there's really no reason why Google couldn't implement them. You could keep them on your Google Drive so that they'd be available everywhere you are.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Controversies

    Do the controversies of PRISM, Lavabit, and the Edward Snowdon revelations make a case against webmail in general and Gmail specifically?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Easy target

    Absolutely. More than anything else, the PRISM revelations have proven that true privacy is harder than ever to come by online. We may have unconsciously accepted this was the case when signing up for Gmail, but there is no question that our personal information has become an important commodity for the online giants. The backlash against Lavabit further reinforces the vulnerability of online webmail services – and shows just how tenuous they really are. There are so many ways to get the same benefits that Gmail offers, through hosted and manageable email services, that this year’s privacy relevations will have been the last straw for many users of Gmail and other services.

    David Braue

    I am for Yes

    No such thing as anonymity

    No, I don't think so. I think you have to assume that someone can look or is looking at your data for whatever reason. Certainly you should assume that for your company email. There's no such thing as anonymity and you shouldn't expect it. Google and other service providers have to comply with law enforcement.

    I know that a lot of people cry foul at that and paranoia sells newspapers and attracts pageviews but the reality is that there's no such thing as privacy or anonymity. In my opinion, you should never assume anonymity and you should assume that someone can hack into whatever it is you use, so make backups or have an alternative ready to use.

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is it time to abandon Gmail?

    When you take all of the factors in balance, what is your conclusion about whether it's time to abandon Gmail or not?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Yes. Give Gmail the flick

    There is no question that Gmail and its ilk offer a high level of convenience and an easy way of getting email onto desktop, smartphone and tablet devices. It also offers undeniably valuable features – although more alternatives are now available, from more cloud providers than ever before.

    Still, it is now clearer than ever just how extensive are the compromises that they require. Users that don’t care about their privacy won’t care either way and will continue buying into Google’s efforts to monetize their entire personal identity – but the growing number of people that want to claw back their own identities will be entirely justified in giving Gmail the flick. It’s like quitting smoking: it may seem unthinkably difficult at first, but once you’ve done it you will never look back.

    David Braue

    I am for Yes

    No. Find something better

    If you can find something better to use, then go for it. I haven't. When I do, I might abandon it. But it might take another ten years to find that magical email service. Gmail does everything for me that I need. There's no reason to abandon a service that has worked flawlessly for ten years and gives me everything for free. 

    Ken Hess

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks everybody

    I hope you enjoyed this week's Great Debate. Our debaters did a great job and I hope that you're looking forward to see their closing arguments on Wednesday. My final verdict will be posted on Thursday. In the meantime, please read the comments and vote for the best argument. Until next week...

    Posted by Jason Hiner

Closing Statements

Users know no better, but sysadmins do

David Braue

Using Gmail is like having a houseguest who cooks delicious gourmet meals every night, but rifles through your wallet while you're sleeping at night. Like many institutionalized Gmail users, my worthy opponent has basically argued that he's been using the service for too long to turn back now.

Sure: Gmail has lots of shiny bells and whistles to keep us occupied and entertained. But to simply say that we should stay with Gmail because there's nothing better, is not good enough. Just remember that Google is using Gmail to keep us living in its online ecosystem, perpetuating incompatibilities and a difficult user interface to keep us in its worldview.

It is, in short, the Apple of webmail.

Some users may love it, but system administrators should lament at the trend towards decentralized, hard-to-control Gmail accounts that not only increase training difficulties but offer Google an open channel through which to analyse, index and sell content you would expect to stay private. When this content includes sensitive personal information – or, even worse, corporate secrets – the result is an email service that is really starting to outstay its welcome. Time to go.

Google is ahead of the game: Find something better

Ken Hess

I think that a lot of the Gmail angst stems from a dislike of things Google. In the same way that people don't like Microsoft. It's always clever to complain about things that we use. Somehow, I guess, it elevates our status as in-the-know tech people. I don't fit into that ilk. I like some Google things, some Microsoft things, some Apple things, and some Linux things. There is no ultimate mail client. 
 
As much as users like to complain about Gmail, they haven't found anything better to use. And I don't mean something that they perceive as better, just because it isn't Google, but I mean really better.
 
Gmail has everything you need. It has advanced features such as domain hosting, attachment sensing, vacation responding, automatic addressing for email aliases, a second-to-none SPAM filter, labels, searchable mail, hierarchical mail, starring/flagging, integrated chat, integrated Google+, Google Drive, Google Docs, and so much more that it all escapes me at the moment.
 
Gmail is built and maintained by the best programmers and thought leaders in technology. I mean, come on, who doesn't want to work for Google? The best search engine, the coolest tools, and leading edge technology is any nerd's dream. Gmail is the bomb. Do people still say "bomb" to describe something that's really cool?
 
Google doesn't follow trends; it sets them. It continues to improve and enhance Gmail. OK, so Google decided to leave out folders. So what? You can make the transition if you try. Feel the real power of Gmail in the Chrome browser. If you haven't tried Gmail, or haven't tried it in a while, try it. You'll wonder why you ever used anything else. And that's coming from a guy who could use any email client and service he wants to use.
 
There's no reason to abandon Gmail until something better comes along. And it hasn't. It possibly never will.

A clear winner

Jason Hiner

With all of the scrutiny around the NSA's PRISM program and Google's deepening reach into user privacy, it's natural to question whether users should trust the most personal of their data, their email, to Google's Gmail. In less than a decade Gmail has ascended to become the world's most popular email service, and it now acts like an incumbent a little too often by making major changes without warning users.

There are decent alternatives, for those who want them. Yahoo Mail is making a resurgence and Microsoft has evolved Hotmail into the more refined Outlook.com. Nevertheless, as Ken has aptly pointed out, all of the competing options still follow Gmail's lead on new features and still trail Gmail in some key areas. And, while Gmail's privacy issues should give businesses pause as David mentioned, there's Google Apps if you want the power of Gmail but with greater security and privacy.
 
As the community has correctly judged, the winner of this debate is clearly Ken.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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