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Google to let users test new Gmail features

Google will let users try new Gmail features the company is testing out at Gmail labs Thursday. A selection of 13 additions is on the initial list of options.

Update 5:35 p.m. PDT: I added more details and a comment that Gmail should finally exit its beta-testing phase "soon."

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Google will invite users to try new features the company is considering adding to its Gmail service, the company said Thursday.

At 6 p.m. PDT Thursday, users will be able to select from 13 new features in a "labs" tab in the Gmail settings page, said Keith Coleman, a Gmail product manager, in a meeting with reporters here.

The 'labs' tab in Gmail settings now has experimental options for users.
The 'labs' tab in Gmail settings now has experimental options for users. Google

"The idea is you can do whatever you want, get it out to tens of millions of people, and get feedback," Coleman said. And popular features will be incorporated into Gmail proper.

Among the new features that are possible:

• A quick-link tool that lets people bookmark specific Gmail messages.

• Superstars, which lets people select custom stars to label mail.

• The "e-mail addict" tool that lets people lock themselves out of their e-mail account for 15 minutes.

• A fixed-width font option to view a message within a font whose characters are the same width--handy for some formatting challenges.

• Mouse gestures that let users take actions based on mouse movements.

• Custom keyboard shortcuts.

• Signature tweaks that let people automatically add a signature file above quoted text in an e-mail reply.

• "Muzzle," which conserves buddy-list screen real estate by hiding status messages.

For now at least, only Google engineers can add features. "Any engineer can code a labs feature," Coleman said. "Once the code is written and mostly working, it'll get into the next product build that goes to users" through the labs feature.

Eventually, though, the company is interested in opening the system up to outsiders if it can find a way to integrate outside code.

"We'd like to get to a point where more people can build on this. That would require something with a different level of interface," Coleman said. "We're interested in making it possible of users and us to iterate on the product faster, so it's something we're interested in."

The openness of Gmail contrasts with the arguably greater openness of Yahoo's Zimbra, which is an open-source project. However, just because a project can be modified doesn't mean those modifications will appear in the version of Zimbra that Yahoo or another company offers as a service.

Google is trying to be open-minded with the feature additions for now.

"There are some things in here we think are probably bad ideas," Coleman said, pointing specifically to a snake game that's one of the 13 features that's amusing but probably not a great idea for mainstream deployment. "It's something we would never do."

The code behind the new features has been vetted at a basic level, but not otherwise heavily tested or screened.

If Gmail is so great, how come it's been in beta testing for four years now?

"We have really high standards," Coleman said. "There are a few things we want to do before we take it out of beta, but we expect to do it soon."