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  • Gmail: Can’t Live With It, Or Without It

    Nowadays, when Gmail makes headlines, it’s often for service hiccups. Outages and slowdowns, fodder for news stories and panicky tweets.

    Upstart: Tech/E-Commerce

    On April 1, 2004, Google announced that it was getting into the e-mail business. Its Web-based, ad-supported service, Gmail, wasn’t much more than a basic inbox with a great search feature. But it offered 1 GB of storage for free in an era when 1/250th of that amount was considered luxurious, leaving some observers — myself included — wondering if the press release trumpeting Gmail was an April Fools’ prank.

    Nowadays, when Gmail makes headlines, it’s often for service hiccups. Outages and slowdowns, usually brief and isolated, are fodder for both news stories and panicky tweets (“Is Gmail down for everybody or just me?”). Last month an embarrassing bug crippled the service for about .02% of users — 30,000 folks — for five days. When you’re as central to the way people get stuff done as Gmail is, trouble for a tiny percentage of users is still trouble for a lot of people. (See a video on the top 10 must-try gmail extras

    Gmail’s biggest challenge isn’t its reliability record, which remains sterling compared with most of the corporate e-mail systems it’s been known to replace. It’s the sheer number of things it does. Little by little, 2004’s stripped-down Web mail morphed into a kitchen sink.

    The emphasis on crazy quantities of storage remains — I currently have 1.8 GB of e-mail and 5.5 GB of room to spare. There’s no longer anything basic about the service, though. It’s chockablock with features, options and related tools, some of which are only tangentially related to e-mail. You can use it to place phone calls to any landline in the U.S. for free. And make video calls. And send text messages or do instant messaging. You can manage your calendar on the left and your to-do list on the right. Did I mention Buzz, the Twitter-like social network that was briefly controversial last year before sinking largely unnoticed into the Gmail gumbo?

    A Google engineer invented Gmail in his spare time, and the current incarnation still feels like a bunch of geeks built it to please themselves. More than 50 features reside in its Labs section, a repository of optional, experimental tools that’s an interesting peephole into the minds of the developers. Some of the Labs features are straightforward and useful, like extra keyboard shortcuts and the ability to view Flickr photos inside messages. Others are a tad idiosyncratic, like Don’t Forget Bob, which looks at a message’s recipients and suggests other people you might want to add to the list. And a few are downright peculiar, like Mail Goggles, which forces you to perform simple math problems before permitting you to send e-mail late at night over the weekend — just in case you partied too heartily and are about to send a message you’ll later regret.

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