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Gmail Labs spreads beyond U.S.

Speakers of 49 languages now can try the customization options of Gmail Labs. Recommended: offline access. Not: Old Snakey.

Gmail Labs, which lets people customize their Google e-mail application with a choice of 43 options, has extended beyond the United States.

The feature is available in 49 languages, according to a blog post by Gmail Engineering Manager Pal Takacsi on Monday. Most Gmail Labs options are translated into all Gmail's supported languages "except Hebrew, Arabic, and Urdu," Takacsi said.

"The majority of Gmail users are outside the U.S., so it's no surprise that since we launched Gmail Labs last year, people around the world have been asking for these experimental features in their local languages. As of today, we're making Gmail Labs available internationally," Takacsi said. "You may wonder, since most Gmail features are available in almost every supported language immediately at launch, why Labs hasn't been. The truth is that Labs itself is a bit of an experiment--it came out of people's 20 percent time, and we weren't sure if it would really work."

Gmail Labs relies on a 2007 overhaul of the Gmail application that introduced a more modular design. With Gmail Labs, Google creates a customized version of the JavaScript application each person's browser runs to use the service. "We thought there was a chance that everything would just break" when expanding more broadly, Takacsi said.

Gmail Labs is an interesting experiment in a broader context, too. Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and other Web sites invariably encounter resistance when releasing updated versions, but Gmail Labs lets only those who are interested in specific new features try them out. It doesn't produce the same type of hard data as bucket testing, in which a fraction of the overall users are involuntarily switched to a new site, but it does let Google respond relatively quickly with new features.

Among the more useful Gmail Labs options in my opinion are offline access, undo send, SMS chat, and Flickr and YouTube previews in Gmail messages. Less essential are Old Snakey and Beer Goggles.