What I hate and love about Gmail

Gmail has a lot going for it, but why can't it offer an optional chronological interface like most email services and program?

I've had a love-hate relationship with Gmail ever since it was introduced in 2004. Among the things I love about Google's free e-mail service is the vast storage, terrific spam filters, fast search, and the ability to automatically forward mail to another address or access it from any e-mail program. What I hate is that the only way to look at your mail at Gmail.com is through a threaded or conversational interface.

Most e-mail programs and Web-based e-mail services present mail in reverse chronological order so that the most recent message is always on top, on a line all by itself. Gmail sort of organizes mail chronologically but it does so it in "conversations" so that messages, responses and responses to responses all wind up within the same message, which may or may not show up on top, even if it's the most recent message to arrive.

In an interview, Gmail product manager Todd Jackson told me that users prefer that interface and, while I've never done a scientific survey, I'm quite sure that some people do prefer that interface to the more traditional one that's used by Outlook, Yahoo Mail and most other mail services. But I know I'm far from the only Gmail user who at least wants the option to look at mail purely chronologically.

It seems to me that it wouldn't be all that hard for Google to give people a choice of how they want to see their mail. Google Labs has come up with all sorts of other options for Gmail that range from the very useful to the downright silly, and it strikes me that an option of letting people see their most recent message on top would be pretty popular.

Jackson acknowledged that others have made such a request but says that "it's not in the top five" on their list of popular requests.

Workarounds

There are a couple of roundabout ways to get your Gmail in pure chronological order. One is to click on Settings followed by "Forwarding and POP/IMAP to configure Gmail so that it can be accessed via Outlook, Thunderbird, Eudora, Outlook Express, or any other e-mail program. Another--and I know this sounds weird--is to also set up a free Yahoo account and forward your Gmail to Yahoo Mail. That way you get Gmail's amazing archiving feature and superior spam filters with the option to view your mail chronologically in Yahoo Mail.

Back to the love side of the equation, Gmail does have some tools that make it easier to find important mail including labels and filters that allow you to highlight mail from certain people or domains. To avoid missing messages that could impact my career, any Gmail I get from colleagues at CBS News and CNET, for example, are highlighted with a red VIP label. I've set things up so that mail from my bank, credit card companies and investment firm get a green label with the word "Financial."

For instructions on how to use labels and filters see Google's excellent video tutorial and for more about the past and future evolution of Gmail check out Stephen Shankland's recent interview with Todd Jackson.

About the author

Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.

 

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