Like most e-mail programs, Google's Gmail application began as a simple tool for composing, sending and receiving e-mail messages over the Internet.
Those of you who haven't dusted off your Gmail accounts in a while, please do so now. You may well not recognize it from when it was launched in 2004 by invitation only. Google has jazzed up the application to the point where it is more of a personal productivity tool for businesses than a consumer communications application.
Take for example, new features that let users add Google Calendar and Docs gadgets, or small applications also known as widgets, to the left-navigation bar next to Chat and Labels.
Users can now view their Google Calendar agendas and get alerts, and search recently accessed Google Docs from within Gmail. The idea is to improve worker productivity by saving users the trouble of leaving Gmail to check their appointment schedules or access their files.
These gadgets are not exactly what you think of when you look at early Gmail or older Yahoo Mail or Microsoft Live Hotmail Web mail applications. Here's another example of how Gmail is going wide, albeit on the communications front.
Users have long been able to send instant messages from Gmail with the chat feature, but on Oct. 30 the Gmail team attempted to open this up a little more by allowing users to send text messages from their Gmail accounts to contacts' mobile phones.
This is a prime example of how Gmail is also becoming an ubercommunications tool with which users can do more than just send and receive e-mail messages. Of course, Gmail is not without its hiccups.
This chat SMS (Short Message Service) feature has only been enabled on a few user accounts because Google wasn't able to turn it on for everyone. The company is working on a fix, which should be ready this week or next.
These features hint that Google may have bigger plans for Gmail, perhaps something along the lines of making the application the hub of work productivity communications for its tens of millions of consumer and business users.
Think about it like this: If you were able to access all of your Google Apps from Gmail, wouldn't you be inclined to make Gmail your home page?
You wouldn't need to go to each application individually, you could just launch everything from Gmail as the central hub for working and playing online. This is something neither Yahoo nor Microsoft seems ready to offer yet.
eWEEK asked Ferris Research President David Ferris, whose research company covers messaging and collaboration tools and uses Gmail to communicate and collaborate, for his take on Gmail.