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Inside Google's Gmail: What's next?

Todd Jackson, product manager for Google's Web mail client, talks about what's been keeping the team busy, from Themes to video chat to contact deduping.

Earlier this week, I sat down with Gmail Product Manager Todd Jackson to talk about the future of the service and to find out what's been keeping the team busy behind the scenes. Here are five tidbits from our meeting you might find interesting.

1. More Themes are coming--including ones designed by you.

No new Gmail Themes have been added since the feature launch in late November, but Jackson says more of the skins are coming. "We want to keep adding Themes. People like it. We don't know exactly how we'll do that yet. The 30 Themes that we chose were hand-designed to look great in Gmail."

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Jackson says the team was split on whether to open up the design process to third parties, like what's been done on Google's customizable start page, iGoogle.

"We've thought about continuing to do it the way we did, and we thought about opening it up for other people to (design them)." Most of the hesitation has centered around Gmail's design, which makes skinning tricky business. "Gmail's structure is an application that's written all in JavaScript. It's a different beast. The detail level we did on Themes--we went pretty deep."

That complexity doesn't mean that the Gmail folks are beyond letting users design their own themes. When pressed if there would one day be a design-your-own Theme tool, Jackson said the closest thing users might be getting is a tool that lets them choose the colors of each Gmail element, similar to the color picker used for Gmail's labeling system.

As to when new Themes are coming, Jackson wouldn't say. However, I got a peek at a few rejects and early mock-ups, including several iterations of plaid that would get the lumberjack or golfer in all of us a little excited.

Gmail via Safari and is all you're getting for now. CNET Networks / Josh Lowensohn

2. No iPhone Gmail app in the works

For iPhone users who are fed up with Apple's built-in Mail application and wish that they could get a native Gmail application like the ones for Android and J2ME phones--don't hold your breath. "We could make one for mail, potentially," Jackson said, "but we'd also have to make one for Palm and BlackBerry. For each platform, it's time consuming."

Instead Jackson thinks the future of Gmail on phones centers around improved 3G coverage and new standards such as HTML 5 that will make using Gmail on your handset's browser less painful. "If we can design for the Web and give you the client-like experience that you're used to getting with Gmail on your browser, it's going to be a good experience."

3. Video chat is capable of HD

Gmail got video chat last year. However, instead of using Adobe's Flash to serve up the video, Google went with a small 2MB plug-in that had to be installed on your machine.

Jackson says the team had gone back and forth between doing the add-on and Flash, but in the end, what mattered was quality, which the plug-in delivered. Going forward, Jackson says the plug-in route will be able to provide even higher-quality video as people's connections improve, going to Video Graphics Array (640x480 pixels) all the way up to high definition.

The duplicates in your contact list will soon be gone with a built-in deduper. CNET Networks

4. The contact manager will be getting an upgrade

Got duplicates in your contact list? Join the club.

Gmail is smart enough to remember people you e-mail frequently and add them as contacts, but it treats each address as its own person--even if the names match. Jackson says a deduper is on the way and that contacts will have more of a presence both in your in-box and in conversations. For now, you can simply copy and paste information from duplicates into existing contacts, and get rid of the old ones when you're done.

5. Attachment sizes could go up

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Comcast and Verizon Communications may be duking it out to offer you the highest broadband speeds possible, but for the most part, e-mail attachment limits have gone unchanged since early 2007, when Gmail jumped from 10MB per message to 20MB. However, that won't help you much when you want to send a couple of full-size photos from a digital SLR camera or a short video file.

"We know people's file sizes are getting bigger. They want to share their files, keep them in the cloud, and not worry about which computer they're on. Google wants to be solving these problems," Jackson said.

To a certain degree, Google has addressed this issue with services like YouTube and Picasa Web albums--but that might be asking a bit much for the average user.

Jackson says a small contingent of power users has asked for a larger capacity but that the "everyday user" seems happy enough with the 20MB size. If Google decides to release its long-awaited Web storage service this year, expect to see it integrated into Gmail right away. In the meantime, if you want bigger attachments, you should let Google know.