[Let me preface this by saying I really do like quite a bit about Gmail. I think they've put a lot of thought into the system they've built, and most of it turned out very nice. It's just some of that thought was completely different than the way I think. Of course that means it's wrong, because everyone should think like me, anyone who doesn't is wrong, and probably ugly too.]
Walt's comment on my post yesterday about Gmail got me thinking about how I use email (not Gmail) and why it doesn't fit with how the Gmail programmers think about email. Allow me to explain exactly how I think about and use email, and why Gmail doesn't work well with the way I communicate.
At work I use Outlook, at home for the past 5 or 10 years I've been using Outlook Express. They get the job done, are reliable and don't seem to have any noticeable problems that get in the way. I've also used a few other programs and they all seem to do pretty much the same thing. That is they all handle email in the same way. I use them to arrange my mail in a way that makes it easy to get things done.
My main folder is my inbox. Anything that ends up in my inbox should be addressed to me and me alone, and should require a reply or be an action item. Support requests end up there, LISNews help ends up there, email from people who have a question about something ends up in my inbox. The inbox is sacrosanct and should never have email sitting in it for no reason. Right now I have just 6 messages in there. None of them are conversations, if they are the entire conversation I need to know about is in the message, or if I really need to dig I look in my sent items folder for it. Currently, I need to set up MySQL backups for 2 people, set up a MySQL account for one person, get back to someone about LISFeeds, remove an email from the LISNews list, and get back to shoe about a new web site. In Outlook that's 6 messages to reply to and then delete. So, as soon as I set up that database I'll delete the message, mission accomplished and I move on. My work account is the same way. My inbox has 2 reference requests, 3 things I need to do for my boss, 2 documents that got scanned and sent to me, a FedEX notice I need to watch, and a schedule I need to add to my calendar. Again, anything in the inbox needs to be acted upon somehow. Everything that is important is in one nice, neat, organized and minimized space. The inbox is important, and kept clean. My primary goal is to empty my inbox as often as possible, essentially crossing out all the things on my to-do list. If there's nothing in the inbox, there's nothing that I need to do right now. I don't need to label things or worry about reading down into a conversation or put in any effort, I just hit delete when I'm done and move on.
I have a big ol' pile of other folders for various other stuff. Most of the other folders are for lists, each list gets it's own folder. I don't need to read every single post to every list I'm on, so they can just settle in different folders, and if I have time I'll see what's going on. There's also a "stuff" folder that's full of random email from the past decade or so that I just want to keep. There's hate mail, praise mail, email from my sister, funny rants from random psychos, and assorted other stuff. It's like a memories collection. Some stuff is important, other stuff I just like to keep around for the helluvit. It's like a inbox from the past.
This system works very well. I don't need to label any mail that comes in. Everything knows where it's supposed to go. It's all very self organizing. The important stuff is right where I can see it, everything else is a click away when I want to see it. Conversations (if there are any) end up being part of each message, I don't ever need 12 different files to follow along, it's just there. I don't need to organize it most days, I don't need to click 12 times to see what's going on, it's very automated.
Now, compare that to how gmail works. Looking at my inbox on Gmail should look the exact same way. 6 messages. Instead, it says I have at total of 17 messages, but to confuse things just a bit, only 4 are showing. Even within those 4, I can only immediately see 7 messages, 2 under 3 groups, and one under the other. The other 10 messages that Gmail claims I have on each "conversation" are actually in the trash. To make it even more confusing, I look at those messages as well, they're from 4 more people and are on completely different topics. Sounds confusing doesn't it? My deleted items have suddenly come back from the dead and are being counted as part of the conversation. To make things even worse, the "RE:" disappears from the email subjects so I can't tell if it's a reply or just a new email. So email from different people on different topics from different days are being combined, even after I delete them, and sometimes the subject is changed. Also add to this the fact that not all email with the same subject is grouped together.
The system completely failed during the series of unfortunate events on LISHost. Last week on Thursday and Friday I must've send and received a couple hundred emails (I'd go back and count, but looking in my sent items folder in Gmail is even more confusing) many that had the same subject, but were to/from different people about completely different things. Gmail was a disaster, I had to click on every single message in every single conversation to make sure I didn't miss anything. I still missed at least 2 that I know of.
Just last night what should've been a quick and easy email exchange went bad. Last night the LISHost "billing department" (aka my wife) sent me 6 or 8 emails within a few minutes to check up on some accounts. Many of them had the same subject, but were again on completely different topics. Gmail grouped some of them together, but separated others. I actually completely missed 2 messages because they didn't show up as new and I had assumed I'd answered everything in a group and I didn't.
"Gmail is an experiment in a new kind of webmail, built on the idea that you should never have to delete mail and you should always be able to find the message you want"
I guess the problem is someone at Google decided email was broken and needed to be almost completely rebuilt. Email wasn't broken, at least it wasn't for me. It seems like I should at least have the option to turn all that stuff off and use a standard email interface. It doesn't matter that I don't have to delete my email, I never had to delete mail that I wanted to keep before. And I really could always find the old messages I want. Putting things in context actually makes me more confused, I never needed context, trying to add it just adds noise.