Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Gmail: I don’t love you any more, but we can still be friends

I’ve been using Gmail since the week it was “released”. There’s a lot I like about it, but I’ve finally decided it’s killing me.

There’s more than one set of problems, but the number one problem is the bloody obligate subject line threading model.

It wouldn’t be so bad if they used some kind of message unique identifier to implement usenet style threading. It would be immensely better if Gmail allowed me to edit the subject lines of incoming messages and thus to create new threads (like this).

In the current state though, it’s a killer. I have too much trouble picking out critically important messages from threads. Searches return the thread, and trawling through the thread is too error prone.

The obligate threading was and is a mistake.

There are other Gmail problems. Google’s only recently fixed up the Contacts model, and I despise the UI for creating mailing lists and working with Contacts. Gmail can be intermittently slow and unreliable – this past week has been very annoying. The IMAP implementation intersects badly with labels; my use of labels means Spotlight searches in OS X Mail.app return multiple instances of a single message.

There’s still a lot I like about Gmail, especially when I use it with iPhone Mail.app. I’m not going to abandon it, but I’m considering simplification measures. I might return to POP style access on OS X for example and use OS X Mail.app when I need to get real work done.

As long as Gmail was used primarily for personal email, their lowest common denominator approach wasn’t necessarily wrong. That’s often a good way to win. Now, though, Google wants to support large enterprises on their Google Apps platform. There are going to be more users like me.

If Google doesn’t start listening to its more demanding customers I won’t be the only one to start seeing other software.

Update: I realize that Gmail contributes to hiding messages in mis-identified threads by hiding the subject line on reply. Sigh.

3 comments:

Skater said...

I don't understand this, it is not the way that Gmail works when I go to it.

The mail always shows the newest mail first, regardless of how old any older messages with the same thread name. If I need to find a particular important message in a thread, a quick search will bring it up.

However, I just don't understand anyone using online email for their everyday reading (especially for non-personal use. Gmail allows you to use any reader you want that can download the messages to your computer(s) for off line reading. The less important stuff can get deleted since you can always go back to the Gmail server to see it at a later date.

John Gordon said...

When I'm searching I want a particular message, I don't want the thread and I usually don't want the latest email in a thread.

Gmail always returns the thread.

I have to wade through the thread to find my message. There's no search within a thread other than the browser string matching, which lacks standard search operators.

Your 2nd paragraph confuses me. The point is that I have been using Gmail for everyday reading. I work with my email from all kinds of machines and platforms.

Using Gmail as my primary email environment is what I'm sadly getting away from. I'd really like it to be my primary email environment, and just use the desktop solutions as a backup store.

If Google allowed me to disable threading, or to change subject lines of RECEIVED email, then Gmail really would work as my message store. It still wouldn't be perfect, but it would be good enough.

Mark said...

John,
I found your blog post about gmail and threading while searching for a solution to the same problem you were experiencing with gmail. I feel much better now knowing I'm not the only person with this issue. You wrote "If Google allowed me to disable threading". That would be the best feature\solution.

Mark