The Good, the Bad and the Spam: The Complexities of Switching to Gmail

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My aunt called me on Tuesday. She just got an iPhone. Admittedly, she is not technically inclined and was in need of a little technical support. Apparently, when she deleted e-mails she received on her computer in Outlook, they still showed up in her inbox on her phone. I diagnosed the problem, but the solution wasn't exactly what she wanted to hear.

Her e-mail is provided through her internet service provider. They don't offer IMAP, a type of e-mail that keeps -- for the beginners out there -- your inbox on your phone and your computer looking exactly the same. You delete a spam e-mail from one, it disappears from both and so on. So, her only options were to realize that deleting from one location -- phone or computer -- was going to delete from both, or to switch to Gmail.

Making s switch from an e-mail address you have used for a long time to one that is brand new feels really traumatic to people like my aunt. It seems like moving to a new house. It's not quite that complicated, but understandable. Still, moving to a place like Gmail that offers a myriad of options over her old provider makes the most sense, but that switch is not without its problems.

The Good Since Gmail appeared on the scene, it has been growing in massive numbers. When it was launched in 2004, it was the hottest invite on the web. Now, there are over 200 million people using the service every day. For individual users, it's free. For businesses who want to transfer their domain names over, it's cheap. The first seven users are free and every one after that is $50 per year.

It's one of the major reasons universities and large institutions are switching to Gmail. The user cost is about the same for Gmail and Microsoft Exchange -- the standard in e-mail server technology -- but there is no maintenance or hardware required. Companies can trim IT departments and hardware costs while still getting e-mail services.

In addition, Google offers a ton of features from sharing of contacts and collaborative documents to the aforementioned IMAP technology that allows users to sync their e-mail across multiple devices including home and work computers, smart phones and tablets like the iPad.

Most importantly Google is massive, meaning that outages, while occasional, are rare and generally short-lived. I can tell you with experience that if you manage someone's e-mail and your server goes down, all hell breaks loose.

It should also be noted that Google has one of the better spam filters around. It's a community-driven filter meaning Gmail learns as e-mails are marked as spam by its users, which leads to fewer mistakes and better overall spam protection. I get a LOT of spam e-mails every day and rarely do they make it to my inbox.

The Bad On the other hand, there are some issues when dealing with Gmail that you don't have to face with most traditional e-mail services. Google likes to do things its own way which means it doesn't provide sorting...because it doesn't think you need it, so you need to find software that does that for you. And this obsession with grouping e-mails into "conversation threads" rather than just showing all of them as they come in is ridiculous and counter intuitive.

Gmail also doesn't allow you to click a file and run the associated software from the web interface -- for example, clicking a Word document doesn't automatically open Microsoft Word. Instead, you have to download the file first, which is annoying to say the least, although you can do that inside a mail software client like Mac Mail or Outlook.

There have also been some server speed issues over the years and problems with send mail servers not working for certain e-mails. These types of glitches, while not uncommon on other types of servers, are still pretty frustrating to the average user.

Finally, understanding how to use Gmail might be one of the great mysteries of life. Engineers don't tend to make things user-friendly. Google is no exception. While they do have extensive support documentation, it is difficult to find and while it is not the least organized user interface I've ever seen, it's close (I'm looking at you, GoDaddy). I work on these kinds of systems every day and I still occasionally find myself lost in the maze of documents and forms that populate the Gmail system.

The Reality Ultimately, Gmail makes sense because it's cheap, it's widely used and it's integrated into a million different websites, operating systems and software applications. For all its shortcomings, Google is the easiest and most readily available email provider out there and you can't be the price.

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