Calling Google's millions of Gmail users: Google needs your help.
The company June 5 began rolling out Gmail Labs, a test for possible new Gmail features.
Users will be able to see the new tools under the Settings option in Gmail. Over on the right, note the tab for Labs. Click it and view the largely unspectacular 13 new features for the application. Check the enable box to activate them and begin testing.
"Gmail Labs is part of our effort to get new functionality out even faster and test features that are more experimental and may only appeal to users who want to be on the bleeding edge," a Google spokesperson told eWEEK. "Based on user feedback, we'll decide which ideas to retire and which to convert into fully baked Gmail features."
The idea behind Labs, wrote Google Gmail Labs Product Manager Keith Coleman, who is helming the rollout, "is that any engineer can go to lunch, come up with a cool idea, code it up and ship it as a Labs feature" sans design reviews and with little testing.
For those who can't see them under Settings yet, the features include Quick Links, which adds a box to the left column that gives users one-click access to any bookmarkable URL in Gmail. Superstars adds additional star icons. Pictures in chat lets users see, well, their friends' profile pictures during chat.
A style utility, fixed-width font, adds an option to the reply dropdown menu that lets users view a message in fixed-width font. Custom keyboard shortcuts let users customize keyboard shortcut mappings. This adds a new Settings tab from which users can remap keys to do different things.
Mouse gestures lets users hold the right-click button and move the mouse left to go to a previous conversation, move it right to go to the next conversation, or move up to go back to the inbox view. Random signature rotates random quotations for an e-mail signature.
Signature tweaks moves your signature before the quoted text in a reply. Note: Signature tweaks cannot be used concurrently with "Random signature" Labs feature.
Custom date formats adds options to the general settings page allowing the date and time format to be changed. Muzzle hides users friends' status messages. E-mail addict blocks your e-mail and chat screen for 15 minutes while you grab that cup of coffee. Hide Unread Counts speaks for itself.
Finally, for pure old-fashioned fun, Old Snakey lets users enable keyboard shortcuts and hit '&' from the main page to play a game of Snake.
Think any of these are great or lousy? Google has put feedback links in there, so you can let the company know what works for you and what doesn't. There is also an escape hatch where you can disable the features.
That Google would open up its Gmail to further development makes complete sense when we consider that Gmail itself is the fruit of one of those Google 20 percent time projects.
To stimulate new software development, Google's management lets engineers spend one day a week on their own projects of choice. Gmail Labs is the extension of this effort. Who knows? Perhaps the features add up to help Gmail become a Microsoft Outlook killer.
Satish Dharmaraj, co-founder for Yahoo's open-source Zimbra collaboration software business, applauded the move in a phone interview with eWEEK.
"It's an interesting first step into where we are already, which is being truly open so the third-party developer can actually write applications you can install in your main Lab," Dharmaraj said.
Currently, Zimbra lets third-party developers write connectors, for example, between Zimbra and Cisco WebEx apps and from Zimbra to Travelocity, Yahoo Maps and Flickr. Gmail Labs isn't yet so open; you've got to work for Google to play in that sandbox.