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.
Ferris, Google Chat About Gmail
“I think Google wants to provide a rich range of free or almost-free messaging and collaboration services,” Ferris said. “I think it wants to persuade businesses of all sizes to migrate away from the dominant mail system used by business, Microsoft Exchange.”
Indeed, the evolution of Gmail, supported by Google’s launch of Gmail Labs June 5 as a sandbox for new utilities, and Ferris’ comments underscore the idea of the evolution of Gmail as an application that is getting increasingly enterprise-friendly.
These developments must be part of some grand plan to unseat Yahoo and Microsoft as the Web mail application of choice for consumers and businesses, right?
Gmail Product Manager Keith Coleman denied any master strategy to this end, noting that Gmail engineers build the tools and release them internally for employees to test in a process called “dog-fooding.” Gmail Labs is essentially Google’s move to bring the public into the dog-fooding process. Coleman told eWEEK:
“The way that we look at the future of our products is less about having any specific vision for what you should be able to do in the product and is more about solving problems that users have. At Google, we like to solve big problems. We’ll talk about these problems internally and wait for people to come up with proposed solutions and then we’ll try those solutions. Some will eventually stick and those are the ones that become our new products or change the future or our products.“
This is markedly consistent with most of Google’s software developments, if you believe in coincidence (wink, wink). But that’s his story and he’s sticking to it.
What about Gmail development? One would think that stitching all of these tools onto an application after the fact instead of building it from the ground up would be problematic from an integration standpoint.
Wouldn’t a new gadget tool mess with Gmail? Coleman said Google’s use of and dependence on AJAX technology allows Gmail engineers to bolt on features without running the Gmail ship into the ground.
Whether you believe Coleman or not, the new features indicate that Gmail is becoming more friendly toward businesses. This may be the starting point where Google helps Google Apps become a more credible solution for enterprises.
Analysts such as Gartner’s Tom Austin and Burton Group’s Guy Creese have repeatedly pointed out that Google Apps is lagging in enterprise readiness because of a lack of certain features or security we’ve come to associate with enterprise applications. Google has to start changing this somehow.
Thanks to the emergence of social networks, many experts and vendors now recognize e-mail as the hub of users’ social and productivity worlds.
If Google is going to continue to battle-test Google Apps for businesses, why not start with Gmail, which has a reported 50 million-plus users?