Tag Archives: gmail

Google’s Design Gridlock

Screen Shot 2013 09 13 at 9 25 14 AM

Another hamfisted design effort from Google, I’m afraid: this time, they’ve compressed the links at the bottom of the Gmail page to Google-related services to a grid, which you have to click on to find the service you want to access. 

This is what it used to look like: 

Screen Shot 2013 09 13 at 9 34 18 AM

This is what it now looks like: 

Screen Shot 2013 09 13 at 9 29 02 AM

Not only does this add a step to the process, but it also requires a significant move of the mouse to the services at the bottom (and don’t get me started on why you’d want to go to Gmail when you’re already in Gmail.) 

And there’s no way I can see of being able to go back to the old set of links at the top. 

This was a design experiment dating back to March, according to TNW. Back then Emil Protalinski commented that this seemed to borrow from Chrome OS and be an attempt to align with its mobile interface: 

We can understand Google replacing the navigation bar with a menu button: it saves horizontal space and works well with the goal of keeping things minimal. That being said, it adds a click to every action.

In the scheme of things this is probably no biggie, but it does seem to suggest that the wrong people are running design at Google, or they’ve run out of ideas, or they’re so intent on getting Google+ buttons everywhere that everything becomes secondary. Whatever, every incremental step that reduces the experience of Gmail adds to the likelihood it will start losing users.

Scammers Scam Gmail Scam Filters

This amused me. A scam message got through Gmail’s eagle-eyed scam filters telling me to update my account details. That’s not unusual. But was it because the scammers added their own assurance that they had already done the filtering?

image

It says:

**************************************************************************
This footnote confirms that this email message has been scanned by New Google Mail-SeCure for the presence of malicious code, vandals & computer viruses.
**************************************************************************

Well that’s alright then.

The Gmail Phish: Why Publicize, and Why Now?

This Google Gmail phishing case has gotten quite a bit of attention, so I thought I’d throw in my two cents’ worth. (These are notes I collated for a segment I did for Al Jazeera earlier today. I didn’t do a particularly good job of getting these points across, and some of the stuff came in after it was done. )

Google says the attack appears to originate from Jinan, but doesn’t offer evidence to support that. I think it would be good if they did. Jinan is the capital of Shandong Province, but it’s also a military region and one of at least six where the PLA has one of its technical reconnaissance bureaus. These are responsible for, among other things, exploitation of foreign networks, which might include this kind of thing. The city is also where the Lanxiang Vocational School is based, which was linked to the December 2009 attacks on Google’s back end systems. That also targeted human rights activists. Lanxiang has denied any involvement the 2009 attacks.

I’d be very surprised if this kind of thing wasn’t going on all the time. And I’m very surprised that senior government officials from the U.S., Korea and elsewhere are supposedly using something like Gmail. There are more secure ways to communicate out there. I think it’s worth pointing out that this particular attack was first identified by Mila Parkour, a researcher, back in February. Screenshots on her blog suggest that at least three U.S. government entities were targeted.

I asked her what she thought of the release of the news now, four months later. Does this mean, I asked, that it took Google a while to figure it out?

As for any other vendor, investigations take time especially if they do not wish to alert the actors and make sure they shut down all the suspicious accounts.

And why, I asked, are they making it public now?

I think it is great they took time to unravel and find more victims and try to trace it. Looks like they exhausted all the leads and found out as much as they could to address it before going public . It has been three months and considering that hundreds of victims [are] involved, it is not too long.

This is not the first time that Google and other email accounts have been hacked in this way, and it’s probably not the last. It’s part of a much bigger battle going on. Well, two: one pits China–who are almost certainly behind it, or at least the ultimate beneficiaries of any data stolen, against regional and other rivals–and the other is Google making these things public. For Google it’s a chance to point out the kind of pressures it and other companies are under in China. Google in January 2010 said it and other companies had been under attack using tricks that exploited vulnerabilities in Google’s network to gain unauthorized access.

Google says it went public because it wants to keep its users safe. This from Myriam Boublil, Head of Communications & Public Affairs at Google Southeast Asia:

“We think users should be aware of the disturbing campaign we’ve uncovered to collect user passwords and monitor user email.  Our focus now is on protecting our users and making sure everyone knows how to stay safe online”

This  attack is not particularly sophisticated, but it involves what is called spear phishing, which does involve quite extensive social engineering techniques and reveals the object of the attacker’s interest is not random, but very, very specific. If you judge a perpetrator of a crime by their victim, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who is the ultimate recipient of any intelligence gathered.

New in Gmail Labs: Smart Labels

New in Gmail Labs: Smart Labels

Wednesday, March 09, 2011 | 10:00 AM

Posted by Stanley Chen, Software Engineer

People get a lot of email these days. On top of personal messages, there are group mailing lists, social network notifications, credit card statements, newsletters you might have signed up for, and promotional email from a shopping site you used once months ago. Gmail’s filters and labels were invented to help manage the deluge, but while I have about 100 filters that triage and label my incoming mail, most of my friends and family have all their messages in a giant unfiltered inbox.

Last year, we launched Priority Inbox to automatically sort incoming email and help you focus on the messages that matter most. Today, we’re launching a complementary feature in Gmail Labs called Smart Labels, which helps you classify and organize your email. Once you turn it on from the Labs tab in Settings, Smart Labels automatically categorizes incoming Bulk, Notification and Forum messages, and labels them as such. “Bulk” mail includes any kind of mass mailing (such as newsletters and promotional email) and gets filtered out of your inbox by default (where you can easily read it later), “Notifications” are messages sent to you directly (like account statements and receipts), and email from group mailing lists gets labeled as “Forums.”

If you already use filters and labels to organize your mail, you may find that you can replace your existing filters with Smart Labels. If you’re picky like me and still want to hold on to your current organization system, Smart Labels play nice with other labels and filters too. On the Filters tab under Settings, you’ll find that these filters can be edited just like any others. From there, you can also edit your existing filters to avoid having them Smart Labeled or change whether mail in a Smart Label skips your inbox (which you can also do by just clicking on the label, then selecting or unselecting the checkbox in the top right corner).

Labs in Gmail are a great testing ground for experimental features, and we hope Smart Labels help you more effortlessly get through your inbox. If you notice a message that was automatically labeled incorrectly and want to help us troubleshoot, you can report miscategorizations from the drop down menu on each message (in doing so, you’ll donate the full message to our engineers so that we can improve the feature). Give it a try and send us feedback on how we can make it work better for you!

This could be interesting. One day they’ll use Bayesian filters and we won’t even have to set up filters of our own. One day.

Google’s Missteps

By Jeremy Wagstaff

This one needed some correcting, for which apologies, and also, unsurprisingly, attracted some opprobrium. It’s Google Notebook, not Notes, and Jaiku’s founders are Finnish, not Swedish.

I’m a big fan of Google. A big fan. But I’ve finally realized what its problem is. It doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing.

Take its recent decision to close something called Google Wave.

Google Wave was introduced to much fanfare back in May 2009. I can’t really describe what it is, but I can tell you what Google called it. Email killer, a new version of the web, etc etc. “Wave is what email would look like if it were invented today,” said one of its creators.

Then, a few weeks back, they killed it. CEO Eric Schmidt said: “We liked the (user interface) and we liked a lot of the new features in it,” he was quoted as saying,  “(but) didn’t get enough traction, so we are taking those technologies and applying them to new technologies that are not announced.”

Schmidt explained Google’s policy like this: “Our policy is we try things. We celebrate our failures. This is a company where it is absolutely OK to try something that is very hard, have it not be successful, take the learning and apply it to something new.”

The point is not that Wave was rubbish. Or great. It’s that we never really got to try it out. When Schmidt says that “we tend to sort of release them and then see what happens” he’s telling the truth. Only it’s not really something he should be too proud about.

Quite a few of us worked quite hard to make Wave part of our lives. Not many of us, admittedly, but enough. Enough to be somewhat peeved to find it’s not going to be around much longer.

This isn’t the first time Google has done this. Google Notes Notebook was a way to collect snippets from the web and save them in the browser. Great, but Google killed that one off. They bought and killed off something called Jaiku, a better-than-Twitter service developed by some guys in Sweden Finland (thanks, Gabe,Adewale Oshineye and others). Of course, like Wave, they don’t actually shoot these things dead, they just go to some weird twilight zone where new people can’t sign up and existing users look kinda passé.

Like people who overstay a party that never really took off.

Who’s going to continue using a product that could disappear at any minute?

This, arguably, is fine when you’re not actually paying for the product. Well, not directly. But what happens when you shell out $500 for it?

That’s what happened when fools bought into Google’s foray into the cellphone world with their fancy Nexus One phone. What it called the Superphone, with plans to make lots more. “Imagine a thousand gphones!” said Schmidt

So people went out and bought it and yay! less than a year later Google closes down the online store where you can buy the thing and then, a few weeks after that, said that it’s not making any more phones.

Of course, Mr. Schmidt put a positive spin on it all.

But it’s not good enough.

I was one of those people who bought the phone because I love Google’s email service, its photo service, its online documents service, its RSS reader, its chat program, its maps. Its search engine. Pretty much everything it puts out. And I thought to myself: all this in a phone, made by the same guys, it’ll be heaven!

Only it wasn’t. The phone is good, but not great. I still use it, but my hope was that Google would be serious about all its products and pulling them together into one seamless service.

Never happened. And now, clearly, never will. Yes, Google make the operating system—the Android OS—so they still have a dog in the fight, but clearly they’ve decided that spending more time on the cellphone thing isn’t worth it for them.

Now these are the gripes of someone who feels a bit like a mug. But they’re also the ramblings of someone who feels there’s a fundamental problem with Google’s approach to the post-search world.

They don’t seem to get it. Buzz, their version of Twitter, is awful. It ignores the fundamentals of the service: it’s personal while also being impersonal, it’s chatty while at the same time having to be succinct. It’s not the same as email, and the people we share tweets with are not, necessarily, the people we email. So putting it together with Gmail was dumb.

Google has got to tread carefully. It’s not really had a hit for a while—since Gmail, probably, back in 2004. Yes, its Google Docs are good, but they’re not taking over the world. And the things they thought might take over the world—such as Wave—are poorly thought out, poorly promoted, poorly supported, and killed off with an insouciance that doesn’t only upset those people like me who took time and effort to build them into our workflow. It’ll also upset two other key groups: business users and investors.

No business user is going to start playing around with a Google product thinking it might be good for their company, because who knows when Mr.. Schmidt is going to pull out his hunting knife? And investors? Well, we’ve seen plenty of tech behemoths who were one- or two-hit wonders.

It’s not time up yet for Google. They’ve just launched a sort of phone service that could be a Skype killer, but who’s going to ditch Skype in their office for something that might not be around in a year’s time? They not only need to come up with good new products. They need to find ways to convince their users they’re not just playthings, given and taken back on a whim.

The Proud Legacy of the New Web

My weekly column for the Loose Wire Servce.

A few things I had to do this week brought me to the same conclusion: Companies that don’t get simplicity are struggling.

First off, I have been writing a paper on social media. What we used to call Web 2.0, basically. Now that everything we do is Web 2.0 it’s kind of silly to call it that. And nerdy. But next time you use Facebook, or Twitter, or any web service that uses a clean, simple interface—nothing ugly, no bullying error messages—then you can thank Web 2.0.

Every time you are pleasantly surprised when the service you use—for free—adds more cool features and doesn’t try to sting you for it, thank Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 made things simpler, more user-centric. Its principles were share, create, collaborate (against the old world’s hoard, consume, compete.)

If you want to read more on this, download the Cluetrain Manifesto, a book written by a cluster of visionaries. A great read and a sort of call to arms for the Web 2.0 generation.

We know this. Researching the paper reminded me of just how influential Web 2.0 has been. But everything else I’ve done this week has reminded me how few companies still don’t get it.

First off, I had to set up a mailing list. You know, sending out lots of emails to people. It’s fiddly if you want to do it right. Before, you’d download software and painstakingly fiddle with spreadsheets and stuff.

Now you can do it online. But not all online services are alike. I tried one, Constant Contact (which doesn’t, actually. sound that appealing a concept. Sounds like an STD or one those annoying kids who follow you around at school.)

ConstantContact was OK, I suppose. But it was fiddly. No way was this going to be fun. Then I tried something called MailChimp. The look and feel of the site was pure Web 2.0. Big buttons, nice colors, the sort of site that makes you want to get yourself a coffee and browse around.

Sure enough, the whole thing was not only a breeze, but a joy. Not perfect—they like their simian jokes, those guys at MailChimp–but so different it brought home how Web 2.0 isn’t a set of tools but a mindset. “How can we make this easier, and fun? And cheaper?”

That was the first experience. Then I had to set up an email account on Microsoft’s online corporate web service, called Outlook Web Access (known as OWA.) The acronym should have given that away. OWA, as “Oh er” or “whoa”. After five years of Gmail using this was like going back to typewriters. And not in a good way.

Clunky, ugly, lots of annoying “Are you sure you want to do this?” type messages.

It was hell. A real reminder of what email was before Google got hold of it. (And, sorry, Yahoo!, but you’re still stuck in the slow lane. I tried your web mail offering again but it wouldn’t let me send half the emails I wanted, instead accusing me of spamming. Sending six emails makes me a spammer? That makes you my ex web mail provider.)

It’s not that Gmail is wonderful. But it’s simple. And it adds features before you’ve had time to think them up yourself. It strives to get out of your way and let you get on with stuff. Very Web 2.0-ey.

Then I had to buy a video camera. It was then I realized that Web 2.0 wasn’t just about software.

I got one of those Flip video cameras three years ago. I loved it. Barely three buttons on the thing, and perfect. An antidote to complicated video cameras and smart phones that require a PhD to use. Web 2.0 on a stick.

So I went looking for a replacement. Flip has been so popular it’s a) been bought out, and b) has lots of competitors. Even Sony have one. Yes, the guys who brought you the Walkman now offer you something called the bloggie PM5, which is basically what the Sony design people think is a better Flip.

Only it’s not. It’s Sony’s view of the world, and it’s striking how anachronistic it looks.

At first blush it’s smart. The lens swivels so you can see yourself videoing yourself. Which is good. But that’s the only thing good about it.

It’s heavy. The buttons are too many in number and aren’t intuitive—I couldn’t even find the volume adjuster, and nor could the guy in the shop—and it has all the things that reminded me why I’d never buy anything from Sony again. A proprietary USB cable slot—so you can only use a Sony cable with it. Their own memory card, which means you can’t use your other memory cards like the increasingly popular SD one.

(Oh and it only records for 30 minutes at a time. Not that the manual tells you that.)

In other words, Sony talks about the bloggie-ness of their bloggie, where you can share all your stuff on Facebook and YouTube, but still doesn’t get the bigger picture: That the Flip was supposed to make all this stuff simple. Open, fun, collaborative, about the moment rather than the fiddling. And no more closed shop. No more trying to sucker you into buying more of their stuff.

I haven’t talked about Apple in all this because the jury’s out on them. They definitely make things easier to use, but they’re still proudly disdainful of everyone else—including, I suspect, their customers. Their products are a joy to use, but I think the Cluetrain passed their stop.

So Web 2.0 is a state of mind. It’s something we should demand of all our interactions with products, services, companies, officials. Simplicity. Put yourselves in the user’s shoes. Don’t put up road blocks. Make using your product, if not a joy, then at least not a pain.

Sony, Yahoo!, Microsoft, print that last paragraph out and make a banner out of it. I guarantee it’ll work wonders for you.

The Browser Wars: Another Milestone

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence lack of links)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

As you know, I’m into milestones, and another one has been passed in recent days: Microsoft’s market share of browsers is down below 60%.

Now this may not sound very exciting to you, but it is. And you are to be congratulated. Because it’s you who have made it happen.

Let me explain.

A couple of years ago, when I started training journalists on things digital, I used to ask them what browser they used. They either answered Internet Explorer—Microsoft’s browser, which comes with Windows—or they would look blankly at me.

The truth is that since the demise of Netscape in the late 1990s, there really hasn’t been much of a battle between the browsers. Most Windows users accepted Internet Explorer, while Mac users settled for the Apple browser Safari.

So when I would ask the class whether they had heard of Firefox, the Open Source browser, they would again look blank, or bored, or both.

That was then and this is now, two years on.

Now most of them have heard of Firefox, and many of them have it installed on their computers.

Not only that: Most of them have tried out Google’s own browser, Chrome.

Indeed, nowadays, when I venture a peek over shoulders at cafes and in offices, I see many more Firefoxes (or Chromes) than I used to.

So it doesn’t surprise me to read that, according to research company Net Applications, Internet Explorer’s market share has, for the first time in more than a decade, fallen below 60%.

Of course, 60% still sounds like a good chunk of the market, but remember this: Internet Explorer is the default browser on Windows computers, which still occupy most of the world’s desktops. Last year that figure was nearly 68%. Two years ago, when I started the training course, the figure was 77%. Back in 2003 it was 95%.

Compare this with Firefox, which is now on nearly a quarter of the world’s computers. And while Chrome has only a small share—6.7%—it is growing at quite a clip. A year ago that figure was closer to 2%.

Some of this may be down to a ruling in Europe which has forced Microsoft to offer 12 different browsers. But more likely is that people are getting smarter—more demanding—about what is on their computers.

After all, we spend a lot more time in our browser than we used to. Most of us now use webmail, rather than a separate email application. A lot of us use tools like Google Docs, rather than Microsoft Office. And, of course, there are productivity killers like Facebook, all of which are primarily accessed through the browser.

So what makes these other browsers so appealing?

Well, Internet Explorer is considered notoriously insecure, for one. Lots of bad things are supposed to happen if you use for online banking etc. And users like their browsers fast and light. But perhaps most importantly, Firefox—and increasingly Chrome—offer a range of plug-ins (little bits of software that, well, plug in, to your browser to do extra things for you, from tell you the time in Timbuktu to letting you save clips to online databases, or to Facebook).

This, I think, is part of a broader trend that Microsoft and others haven’t figured out yet.

I see an increasing number of people using Gmail, Google’s webmail service, and I’ve noticed that all these people have customized their interface. This wouldn’t have happened even a year ago. Now they’re exploring beneath the hood of the default settings, and changing their environment to suit their moods and work styles. Some of these changes are small—background colours or themes—but they’re also more productivity-oriented, adding labels and filters to their workflow.

This is great. This is just what they should be doing. But it’s also part of a bigger trend that I believe explains the inexorable shift away from the default.

The simple truth is that as we spend more time in the browser we’re less likely to just go with what’s given to us. We want our browser to be as good as possible and because the changes we make to our online services are movable feasts: If I’ve changed the background on my Gmail to black, shifting to another browser isn’t going to reset it back to boring white.

There’s another factor at play here. Websites used to look very different depending on what browser you used. That’s changed, as developers follow standards more closely (what’s called being “standards compliant”). This gives us users a lot more flexibility—we don’t feel like we’re going to break something on our computer, or not be able to access, say, our banking website—if we’ve left the reservation and installed another browser.

The next step: the browser replaces your operating system. Google is onto it. 

Xoopit, Or Channels vs Trenches

I’ve been a fan of Xoopit so I guess I am a bit surprised that Yahoo! has bought it. Xoopit, for me, was the future of email. Or a part of it.

(For those of you who haven’t used it, or those who didn’t “get” it, Xoopit is a plugin for Gmail—for others, too, but Gmail is the best working one—which extends Gmail’s functionlity: better search for attachments, dovetailing with Facebook so you can see who you’re talking to on Gmail etc.)

Xoopit, for me, was/is a way to push email beyond being one channel of communication to being part of a single channel of communication. In other words, I believe it will make no sense to future generations that we have different applications for communicating with people.

Right now we have SMS, phone, email, Facebook, LinkedIn, twitter, face time, and then within those we may have several accounts, depending on whether we’re at work etc etc… This does not make sense.

Some of us would argue that it makes sense if we want to keep our work friends in LinkedIn, and our family friends on Facebook. Yes, but those shouldn’t have to be product choices, surely?

We didn’t use separate postal services to communicate with different kinds of people we knew, or different phones for different kinds of friends? (Well, OK, we may have kept a work phone and a personal phone, but I don’t see many people doing that these days.)

What we are really looking for is a way to organize our increasingly complex social, work and family lives into a coherent web that allows us to control how we communicate with them—not dictated by service, device, product, but by our preferences.

For example, I want to communicate with friend A via SMS because that suits me (and her). I should be able to send that SMS through pretty much any device I want—phone, voice, computer (email, twitter, Facebook etc), TV, pigeon, whatever. It shouldn’t matter to me.

Similarly, the method and format that Friend A receives the message in should be her choice. It shouldn’t be an issue that I sent it as an SMS. She should be able to receive however, and wherever she wishes—guided by whatever factor is important to her (priority—’let everything from Jeremy through’—or cost—‘don’t send me anything by SMS because I’m on roaming, but data is free’ or device—“I’m only carrying my no-data cellphone so route all important communications thro via SMS”.)

Right now this is only a dream, for the most part. Why? Because we’re still stuck in a world of platforms, packages and a lack of understanding of why and how people communicate.

We don’t love twitter because it’s twitter. We love it because it opens all sorts of new doors for sharing information and experiences. And because it’s an open platform, which means we can control how we send and receive.

But we’re still some way off.

Some way off a world where I decide who I communicate with and how I communicate with them, instead of being nudged into one or another walled garden. I may want to talk to Friend A about their holiday on Facebook, but about the new project we’re working on via Gmail. I should be able to do that however I want, and from the same place, and she should be able to decide how she receives and reponds to those emails.

Right now we’re stuck in these trenches dug for us by the creators of the services.

A truly open system will be one where we control these channels.

Xoopit was just a small step, but it had potential. Being able to see whether someone I was talking to on email had a Facebook account—and, if they did, being able to see their profile picture—was great for me, as I communicate often with people I’ve not met, and who often have first names that aren’t always gender specific. Always good to know.

Imagine if that service extended to LinkedIn, twitter and others. Gmail would become a console that would enable me to manage and extend my networks more efficiently than occasional trawling through the network services pages themselves.

And finding attachments? Sounds trivial but it made finding stuff easy, and turned Gmail into an online repository of files I could—relatively—easily share and pass on to others.

Small shifts, but in the right direction.

The chatter on TechCrunch is that Google didn’t buy because it’s launching Wave.

Maybe true, but great though Wave sounds it doesn’t, I think, move us in the direction of open channels. Instead, it sounds a lot like Google wasn’t interested in Xoopit because it was taking Gmail in the wrong direction—into the world of open channels—when Wave is designed to keep us in the trenches.