GMail Labs and the Shotgun of Innovation

For those of you old enough to recall the Great Google Take Over of the earlier days of this new millennium, you will recall one exciting day: The day Google Labs was released. It was an exciting time - a corporation to exercise such transparency, teasing it's users with a great slew of tools to come. Many of these have since become "graduates" and things we have incorporated into our lives so much to the point that it's hard to remember how we ever got to John's house party before the aid of Google Maps.

More recently, in this past year, Google's GMail team took a similar approach with GMail Labs. Remembering the day I first saw Google Labs, I immediately went to check out GMail Labs expecting a vast array of useful and innovating tools that would improve my emailing experience. And while I wasn't entirely disappointed with the features I saw, I expected much much more.

But I'm not here to review the Lab tools. Instead, I'm commenting on the bizarre (read: innovative) approach Google has taken. In the days when Google was just a search engine, it was huge news when they started offering a map service far superior to MapQuest. To date, they have not had a similar breakthrough with their GMail tools. Instead I see silly gimmicks that aren't so much useful as they novelties. You see the tool, you chuckle. You don't install it, and thus you never use it. Some personal examples being the Muzzle feature - which hides GChat statuses, the Email Addict which blocks you from emailing for 15 minutes, the Canned Responses, etc.

While they have some nice innovations like the Forgotten Attachment Detector, which detects whether you intended to include an attachment, there's a lot of lab experiments on there that confuse me. I'm not sure why Google would have considered it's implementation to begin with. Some of the features are not even new features, but are only new features within the GMail web client.

Google had really raised the bar with it's original Google Labs, and so far I've just found myself look at their GMail Labs with puzzlement. I even consider some of the GMail features on par with amateur hobby developers who put out silly bits of code that are largely unusable. Like Mail Goggles - a feature which asks you to perform some simple arithmetic before sending your email, to ensure you are in a sober state. This is something I'd expect from a basement website, not a corporation that has redefined the internet. I love their culture of innovation - but this is more akin to college humor than something that will disrupt emailing forever.

Most peculiarly is the option to set Reply All as a default. If you've ever been on a problematic reply-all bedlam3-style event, you'll know dangerous this can be. Does Google really see this as a useful innovation, or is this a way to eat up the disruptive 1Gig of email that was the real innovation?

What's more curious is that with so many recent server issues, GChat bugs, and lack of more broadly available features (like folders) why are they focusing on Mail Goggles?

I get they're trying to look disruptively uncorporate - but then why by academic and call it Labs? Call them Toys - or, lean in on Labs more and call them Experiments.


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