Gmail domain hosting
Some months ago, I learned that Google was initiating a beta of its new hosted-domain email service for small businesses. I applied for admission to the beta immediately, got accepted, and I've now been using the new service for a full week. Do I like it? Yes, I like it a lot. Actually, I feel like I've finally fully entered the twenty-first century.
Why did I switch? Well, I suppose the sine qua non is that Google gave me the option to consider, by introducing this new domain-hosting service, which makes it legal for me to use Gmail for business. But I decided to take the opportunity for two main reasons. First, I finally convinced myself that the advantages of web mail outweighed the disadvantages. And second, after using the older Gmail for a couple of years, I knew that Gmail's online email application has some strengths that desktop applications don't have.
Gmail domain hosting?
This is not the regular Gmail service that everybody knows, where you have an address that ends with "@gmail.com". The new service completely replaces the email hosting I got as part of my domain-name hosting contract with Point in Space, an outstanding small hosting service. The polytrope.com web site is still hosted on Point in Space's servers, and I use Point in Space for other things, as well, such as FTP, discussion list services and database hosting. But as of one week ago, email sent to me or anybody else "@polytrope.com" ends up on servers owned and managed by Google - and stays there. I wasn't even aware until recently that this bifurcated arrangement was technically possible. Google hosts the "MX" (mail exchange) servers for polytrope.com, while Point in Space continues to host every other aspect of the domain.
Advantages of web mail in general
The point of the switch, or at least the first half of the point, is to get the benefits of web mail.
Using web mail means that I can get my email from any computer. This matters to me as I switch computers fairly regularly, and also because on a regular basis I tend to work at more than one computer. I can now get the same email equally well from any of the four computers that I have handy, or from any other computer anywhere in the world. This is an unmitigated plus.
Using web mail also means that I have to worry slightly less about losing mail. It would, no doubt, be foolish of me to trust the safety of my email 100.0% to Google. I do remember the problem Hotmail had a few years ago, when it had a major glitch and irretrievably lost subscribers' email. So I will regularly download my messages to Thunderbird for archiving. But generally speaking, Google's (or Yahoo!'s or Microsoft's) technical folks are likely to do a better job than I have been doing about backing things up.
And even if I decide that I don't like the online user interface after all, the fact that I can nevertheless leave all my messages on Gmail's servers means that Gmail could solve another problem for me - the problem of switching desktop clients. During the last nine months, I've vacillated between Thunderbird and Outlook for Windows. The vacillation has been a waste of time and has caused me to lose messages, because getting messages from Outlook to Thunderbird is not easy, and moving messages from Thunderbird to Outlook is nearly impossible. But if I can keep all my messages on Gmail's servers, I can decide in a month to switch from Thunderbird to Outlook, and simply download to Outlook everything that's on Gmail's servers, which will be everything I have. With Gmail providing 2 GB of storage, I don't expect to have to delete messages from the server for a good long while, at least not for a couple of years.
But I don't expect to switch back to using a desktop app again. I'm committed now to Gmail and will use its online email application, for receiving, reading, composing and send all of my mail, from this day forward, until death (or a better deal) do us part.
Gmail in particular as an email client
Of course, none of the advantages just mentioned would be worth the trouble if the Gmail application itself were lousy. Luckily, it isn't. I was a little worried that I'd miss the editing tools available in a desktop client. But to my surprise, I'm finding that I can edit messages about as well in Gmail as I could in Thunderbird or Outlook. I do switch over to textSOAP occasionally to clean up quoted text in a message, but I did that in the desktop apps, too. Gmail's spelling checker works fine, and I'm able to provide ordinary text formats.
And in a couple ways, Gmail is - at least to my way of thinking - fundamentally and decisively superior not just to Yahoo! mail, but superior even to Thunderbird, Outlook, Eudora, Mailsmith and Apple Mail (to name just a few of the desktop clients I'm familiar with).
I'm very fond of the way Gmail organizes messages into threads or "conversations." Messages that belong together - incoming and outgoing - are always kept together. No desktop email client I know does this. Apple Mail gives you the ability to click on a message that you've replied to and find the reply that you composed. But Apple Mail, like every other desktop client I know, is a slave to its folder hierarchy. Incoming mail automatically lands in the inbox, outgoing messages land in the "sent" mailbox. You can move things around manually and you can use filters, too, but the fact remains that the program itself does nothing at all to keep together all the messages that belong together. Gmail's notion of an inbox is rather looser. Gmail calls it an "inbox" because that is the term people are familiar with, but it's really more like a "current messages" mailbox. The inbox in Gmail contains all messages that you have not archived yet, both incoming and outgoing - in fact, even draft replies that have not been sent yet are stored with the conversation that they are part of. It's a brilliant idea.
(NOTE: Gmail also has a "sent" mailbox that serves a fairly conventional purpose: it simply contains messages you have sent, without conversations. If you start a conversation by sending a new message to someone, in other words, by creating a message that is not a reply, that message goes to the sent mailbox and gets archived immediately, so it does not show up in your inbox - until the person replies. As I said above, the inbox contains active conversations. If a conversation has been archived, and a new message is added, Gmail brings it back to the inbox automatically.)
Which leads me to another novelty in Gmail: Gmail does not use folders. It doesn't require you to spend time organizing your messages, instead, it provides you tools that make it easy to find messages. Google is, of course, synonymous with web searching, and the find feature in Gmail is easy to use, accurate and fast.
And if you want some preliminary grouping of messages such as you normally get by moving messages into folders, in Gmail, you use labels. Labels, like folders, are an organizational tool, but with a twist. A single message in a desktop client can only be filed in one folder. The same message in Google can have as many labels as appropriate. So, for example, a single message from my associate Daniel can get the label "Daniel" (applied to all messages to or from him); and if appropriate, it can also get the label for a specific project that we're working on together.
Inevitably, the decision to switch to Gmail, while solving many old problems, introduces a few new ones.
My only real problem with the Gmail online application itself is that it doesn't have a stationery or templates feature. Thunderbird and Outlook both let you create stationery or templates - messages that have boilerplate text, or standard groups of addressees, so that you can use them over and over again without rewriting the message each time or even having to find an old copy and modify it. I'd also like to pay a few dollars to get the ads in Gmail to go away, but that's not an option.
There is a larger problem that may not really be Gmail's fault at all, namely, I can't configure Gmail as the default email client for my operating system. Windows XP won't even let me identify Firefox as my default client (although it does recognize Hotmail).
Finally, although Gmail was able to import addresses from Thunderbird, it is not able to import messages, that is, there does not seem to be any obvious or easy way for me to upload all my old messages to the Gmail servers, so that I can have everything in one place. Right now, I'm going to have to remember July 2006 as the birth date of this new service. If a message was received after that date, I can search for it online. If the message was received before that date, I'll have to dig through my Thunderbird archives.
But the bottom line is that Gmail is very good and I'm quite happy with the switch.