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.
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.