The Road to Inbox:0

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in February of 2009.

In the last week or two, Google’s GMail app added a bunch of new features, at least three of which are, to my mind, insanely significant. As you probably know, GMail is about three years old, still in beta, and from it’s release, the most innovative approach to email that we’ve seen since the whole folder metaphor was first thought up. The three new features are Offline, Keyboard Shortcuts for Labeling, and Multiple Inboxes. Offline and Multiple Inboxes are added through the “Labs” section in settings;if you use Gmail, you can use the label if you have Keyboard Shortcuts turned on.

I love Gmail because it is designed to do a lot of my maintenance for me, and I can keep all sorts of mail (I’m up to 729 MB) and find anything instantly. Key to all of this is GMail’s gleeful abandonment of the file cabinet metaphor, an imposition on computing from the early days that is intuitive to humans, yes, but not the most efficient way to manage online information. And maybe this is why I’ve always appreciated Google – they got from the start that you don’t organize massive amounts of information by sorting it all into separate piles, an idea that most of their competitors have not let go of.

Here’s how I use Gmail: Using pop forwarding, I feed three separate email accounts into my primary GMail account. I have it set up to reply using the address that the email was sent to, and each account is automatically labeled with a specifically colored label identifying it’s origin. I have 36 labels defined, and 66 filters that primarily label messages as they come in. I “star” messages that relate to current projects, and I try to keep my inbox to less than 50 messages at any given time. Cleaning up the inbox is a matter of labeling the messages that aren’t accounted for by the filters, deleting the ones I don’t want, and archiving.

Offline, of course, simply gives me a local copy of my inbox for those rare times when I’m out of plugged in, wireless, or AT&T 3G range of a connection. But having a local backup of my inbox is, um, priceless.

Last week, Google introduced new dropdowns for labeling and “moving” messages. The “Move To” tab is somewhat ironic, because GMail doesn’t store messages in different places. It identifies them by their labels. New messages, on arrival, are labeled “inbox”, and “archiving” a message is simply the act of removing the “inbox” label. So the “Move To” menu was strictly a concession to those who can’t let go of the folder idea, so I have little use for it. But, in addition to the new dropdowns, Google also introduced a keyboard shortcut. Typing “l” (lowercase “L”) brings up the labels dropdown; typing the first few letters of a label takes you to that label, and hitting “Enter” applies it to the current message or the selected ones. This allows me to select and label messages far faster than was possible when the mouse was required to open and then scroll through the dropdown menu.

Multiple Inboxes allows you to put as many boxes of messages meeting specific criteria (“has label”, “is starred”, “is a draft”, any search criteria) on your GMail home page. For users with wide displays, these can be placed to the right or left of your inbox. Since I work a lot on my 15″ laptop screen, I chose to add inboxes under the main inbox. To start, I’ve added starred items in a box under my inbox, which lets me keep things that don’t need immediate responses, but should be handy to refer to, right where I want them. Another creative use (as tweeted by Sonny Cloward) is to have a box with all items labeled “task”, but I actually use the recently-added “Tasks” function for that.

Regardless, you’ve heard me rave about Gmail here if you follow my communication posts, but that was all before they added these features, making GMail another 33% more awesome than the competition to an information management geek like me.

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