Gmail turns five today, so we sat down with Gmail’s Senior Product Manager Keith Coleman (virtually via Gmail, naturally) to discuss where it’s been, where it’s going, and that five-year-old beta tag.
We’ve talked to Coleman once before about IMAP and Greasemonkey back when Google started rolling out some serious changes, but since then the email application has been progressing at lightning speed. Here’s what Coleman had to say about five years of Gmail, and what we can expect in the next five years.
Lifehacker: After five years, the most obvious question to ask off the bat: Can we ever expect Gmail to leave beta?
Keith Coleman, Gmail Product Manager: Yes—there are people working on it right now. (And I promise, they’re not just editing the logo .png)
Lifehacker: When Gmail launched five years ago, did you guys have any idea you had something quite so game-changing? (Archiving vs. Deleting and threaded conversations were new, but they also changed everything people had been trained to expect from webmail. Incidentally, I can remember paying $US5 on eBay at the time to get an invite.)
Lifehacker: Right now some of the best/coolest Gmail functionality is coming from Google Labs. What’s the future of Gmail Labs? Will Labs ever open up to non-Googlers?
Coleman: The goal of Labs is to bring the whole world into our (previously Googler-only) dogfooding process. We want engineers to be able to come up with crazy ideas and get them out to users as quickly as possible. We find this is a great way to uncover ideas that really work. We’re launching both 20% projects and some more full-fledged projects there—so far 43 Labs in the 43 weeks since we introduced it—and you’ll continue to see many new ideas there. And as of Monday, these will work in 49 languages for users around the world. (We were a bit hesitant to add the ~422 trillion additional permutations of the code this results in, but figured why not.)
Lifehacker: In the past five years, what are the coolest ideas you’ve considered but not implemented? Why not?
Coleman: We are working on some of the coolest ones right now. I am pretty sure we’re not going to finish Autopilot anytime soon, though.
Lifehacker: A lot of people would kill for a desktop version of Gmail. Is Offline Gmail the best they can expect, and if so, what plans do you have for Offline Gmail in the future?
Coleman: We’re always considering new architectures—just like the first AJAX version of Gmail, and the rewrite we did last year that allowed the rapid parallel development that you see in Labs. Our main focus at Google is improving the browser. That’s why we started with the Gears-based approach of offline Gmail, which simply makes the web work when you’re not connected to the internet. We’d like to see browser capabilities continue to grow so that web app experiences can get better and better, online and offline. Even about two years ago, most browsers couldn’t support the complexity of Gmail’s codebase today, and in the last few months alone we’ve seen a slew of new browser updates that are really boosting performance. The same is happening on mobile devices—rich AJAX support, better performance and HTML5 are becoming standard (we recently demo-ed a version of Gmail mobile that takes advantage of these trends).
Lifehacker: I know that in the past Googlers have been the initial guinea pigs for new Gmail features. Are there currently any major differences between the Gmail you use inside Google and the Gmail we use every day?
Coleman: Yes, and we are very excited about them. They involve some non-trivial changes and need more work before they’re Labs-ready.
Lifehacker: Gmail seems to have been progressing in leaps and bounds in the past year from the users’ perspective—especially compared to the relatively slow development we were seeing to the front end in previous years. Can we expect more exciting developments? Integration with Google Voice? Etc? What do we have to look forward to from Gmail in the next five years?
Coleman: Stay tuned for more, and keep the feedback coming—the team really values all the responses we get on Labs and other launches. As for what’s next, we have a lot of ideas and many ongoing projects, though we like to avoid pre-announcing anything. This is in part because it spoils the surprise, an in part because we wouldn’t actually know what to pre-announce. Our products evolve in big, unpredictable ways as we develop them internally, and most of our predictions of what would launch, or when, would be pretty inaccurate. That said, we are working on some exciting things and pay close attention to user requests—we read a lot of comments, especially on sites like Lifehacker where some of our most demanding users post their ideas.