What's Wrong with Gmail, and What Google Can Do About It

There's no question that Gmail has been one of Google's overwhelming successes -- especially compared to the company's less well-fated endeavors such as Wave and Buzz. But lately, I've found myself disliking Gmail more and more. Here's why.

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

August 5, 2011

3 Min Read
What's Wrong with Gmail, and What Google Can Do About It

There’s no question that Gmail has been one of Google’s overwhelming successes — especially compared to the company’s less well-fated endeavors such as Wave and Buzz. But lately, I’ve found myself disliking Gmail more and more. Here’s why.

To be clear: I’ve been a satisfied Gmail user for years, first running it in conjunction with the standalone client Evolution but later relying solely on Gmail’s Web interface. It’s worked pretty well, and I remain a Gmail loyalist even as competitors such as Facebook try vainly to redefine e-mail. (Sidenote: Why does Facebook force me to reply-all on group threads? That kills me.)

In other words, Gmail has proven for me to be consistently better than the alternatives, and until I find the time and money to run my own personal dedicated mail server, I don’t foresee ending my relationship with it.

Gmail Gripes

That said, having fewer problems than competing options hardly means Gmail is perfect. In particular, the following outstanding inadequacies have long perplexed me:

  • Searching for messages by date: it’s possible, but it’s neither intuitive nor easy. I like that Gmail’s interface is refined and simple, the trade-off for which means that some features are harder to find.  Nonetheless, being able to jump to a certain date seems like pretty basic functionality that Gmail doesn’t provide well.

  • Speaking of Gmail search, the whole thing could be improved. It doesn’t tolerate misspelled search terms or attempt to prioritize results based on anything more sophisticated than date and the presence of the query itself in a given message. Some days I wonder whether the algorithm isn’t actually just a 30-line Python script written by some high-school student. The irony of the shortcomings of Gmail search compared to Google’s Internet search engine is astounding.

  • The obligatory “virus checks” are slow and ineffective. Google insists on scanning my e-mail attachments for the scary “viruses” they might contain, a process that can sometimes take quite a while.  Yet as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, the scans essentially look at the filename extension to decide whether a message might contain malware. The contents of the attached files themselves have no bearing. So remember: When writing malware scripts, be sure to give them an extension like .txt, and in the eyes of Google they will be perfectly safe e-mail attachments.

Does It Matter?

These are only my personal Gmail gripes; others doubtless have their own complaints. Regardless of how imperfect Gmail is, however, the more fascinating aspect of these problems is the way they don’t seem to matter, insofar as most end users are concerned.

Like Apple, which produces expensive phones that only kind of work as phones and laptops that cost way more than the hardware inside if purchased separately, Google gets away with its failures on the Gmail front because consumers have become so enthralled with the company’s successes that they readily ignore places where it comes up short.

Viewed from a broader perspective, then, the issues with Gmail highlight the extent to which producing an excellent application doesn’t actually matter as much as cultivating an appealing image. As a reflection of what end users actually value, that may be sad, but it’s true.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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