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Tag: Gmail

Google’s Inbox is Exactly What Email Should Be

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I was not impressed when I first saw Google’s vague overly-feel-good marketing materials for their new Inbox product. It seemed like a design refresh for email focused on implementing Google’s Material Design aesthetic rather than something that I absolutely needed. But, thanks to an invite from my buddy David, I’ve been able to use Google’s new take on email for about a week and I have to say this is the email product I’ve been waiting for.

What does it do that has gotten me so excited? There are three core pieces of functionality which make Google Inbox a great fit for the productivity-minded Gmail user:

  • Auto-categorization that actually works: Google has taken Gmail’s smart inbox functionality (which can tell personal emails apart from social updates, promotions, and forum posts) and have taken this to a whole different level with Inbox. The new categorization tech not only automatically groups common email types like trips vs bills vs social network updates, but it can, for many types of email, recognize the implied rules for the labels I already have and preserve those (i.e. messages to/from my wife).
  • The ability to snooze/dismiss email: One of Inbox’s most compelling features is a clone of the Dropbox-owned Mailbox app’s snoozing email functionality: moving an email out of your inbox until you’re ready to deal with it (i.e. until later tonight, tomorrow morning, later this week, etc). This feature, thankfully, also extends to the smart categories functionality, which, for instance, lets you snooze all of your promotions-related emails or dismiss all your email receipts in one go.
  • The ability to add todo items/reminders: Inbox also lets you add todo items and reminders directly into the inbox. These todos/reminders are treated as if they were emails — they sit side-by-side with “regular” emails in the interface and, as you probably expected, are also snooze-able (and sync with Google Now’s reminder functionality).

These enhancements let Gmail power users (like myself!) more readily use email as a productivity tool which tracks all the things they need to do (rather than managing a separate email and todo list) across multiple platforms (web, Android, iOS) with functionality built in to make it easier (like auto-bundling related emails and auto-complete as you type out todo items/reminders) as well as being integrated directly into Gmail (so with full support for search and without creating strange new labels/folders the way Mailbox does).

That being said, while the app’s conceptual and usage model are geared for power users, its missing some of the functionality that I (and I’m sure other Gmail power users) have come to depend on such as in-browser push notifications, ability to embed photos in messages, the ability to add things to a bundle/label via keyboard shortcut, support for labs functionality like embedding the calendar widget in the interface or pulling in preview functionality for Yelp/YouTube/Google Maps inline in the email, and the ability to snooze an email/todo (and set the time for the snooze easily) with a keyboard shortcut.

Those small problems aside I’ve taken so much to Inbox that it now pains me to use the regular Gmail interface for my work email account and I can’t wait until Google extends Inbox support for Google Apps accounts. If you have access to an invite,  I would 100% recommend giving it a shot for a while.

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Google Loves to Make Marketers’ Lives Harder

Customer acquisition is oftentimes the key cost for a startup, and hence one of the most important capabilities for a startup to build and a key skillset for a startup to hire for. One reason for that is that Google, while a great tool in many ways for helping companies with customer acquisition, can really make customer acquisition hard to do.

Why? Well, the importance of Google to the internet means its algorithm and policy changes have HUGE impacts on customer acquisition costs and strategies.

Case in point: a little over two years ago, content businesses — like Demand Media which had learned to profit on the difference between the cost of acquiring customers from search engines and the advertisement money they could make on their content — woke up to a sudden shock when Google algorithm changes drastically changed their cost of acquiring web traffic. While this was a conscious effort by Google to improve its search results for its users, the result was like a natural disaster: an unanticipated and massive change in the business environment. Investors dinged Demand Media’s stock price by 50%, Yahoo shuttered its Associated Content business and replaced it with Yahoo Voices, and many of the initial big losers from Google’s algorithm updates continue to lag in search rankings.

Just a few months ago, Google again shook the customer acquisition world by introducing a new tabbed interface in their Gmail web email client. While tabbed interfaces have been around forever, what made Gmail’s special was that these tabs also served to filter email messages so that Facebook/Twitter updates, forum posts, and – drumroll – promotional emails/coupons – weren’t the first thing a user sees when they open up their mail. The result? All those brilliant subject lines and email marketing campaigns that you’ve come up with? There’s a really big chance they got shunted to a tab that the user is predisposed to ignore with impunity. The result?  Companies who rely on email as a customer acquisition channel have to find ways to counteract this — getting users to (1) open up their “Promotions” tab and (2) designate to Gmail that they want those particular promotions to hit the main inbox – or shift to a new way of getting customers to act.

This type of thing is typical in the customer acquisition world: to succeed, you need to not only get really good at today’s modalities of acquiring customers, you also have to be adaptable – and roll with the sudden changes that Google or Facebook or one of any sudden shifts in the digital world can do.

Update at 11AM PST, 8 Oct 2013: As if on cue for my blog post, I received an email from eCommerce jewelry vendor Blue Nile today about moving their promotions into my main email tab 🙂

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Staying in Sync

While I don’t expect everyone to be as device-crazy as I am, one of the obvious consequences of convergence (the idea that more gadgets will become more computer-like — think smartphones, tablets, etc.) is that more people will have more devices. This creates new problems for users who, especially if they are from the US, were previously used to accessing their services/information mainly from a single device. After all, a well-built service or source of information should optimize experience around the user, not which device.

This proliferation is one reason I think internet services like Evernote and Gmail took off: for someone working with multiple devices, its much easier to make sure every device has access to the same data and functionality when the data and functionality aren’t on the devices themselves but hosted somewhere “in the cloud.” (Thank you, Dilbert)

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The same logic applies to syncing services like Dropbox and applications like Netflix and smart syncing software like Chrome: they make it easy to ignore which device you’re using and just focus on the functionality and data that you want access to (in the case of Dropbox, its files; in the case of Netflix, its your viewing history and your place in a given video; and in the case of Chrome, its browser history and preferences).

Its gotten to the point where there are enough app developers and technologists working on this type of syncing that I get disappointed when a service or application fails to intelligently think about syncing as a way to delight the user. For instance, I get regularly irritated by the Twitter app for not tracking which interactions (@replies, favorites, re-tweets) I have previously seen. As I routinely move from one device (a smartphone) to another (a PC) to yet another (a tablet), with each device, I need to recheck which tweets and interactions I have seen and which I haven’t. While this is hardly the end of the world, it is only obvious because apps like Google’s new Hangouts app and Amazon’s Kindle app pass information on what you’ve seen and to where between devices, making it a coherent service completely unchained to the specific device you’re using – you can start a chat/book on one device and transition to another device without a hitch. I especially am a fan of Hangouts’ extra step: if you see an incoming message on one device, it will remove the notification from all the other connected devices (and will even minimize the open windows in other Chrome browsers).

This sort of abstraction is a common theme in the technology industry – where new companies and technologies emerge to simplify new sources of complexity. Its something I believe is becoming key functionality as the underlying problem (people with lots of devices and lots of services) grows. My advice to developers and entrepreneurs out there: don’t assume your users are married to any particular device and help them stay in sync. They will reward you for doing so.

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Droid 2 vs iPhone

imageI recently came out very positive on Google in a comparison of Google’s and Apple’s respective business models and product philosophies, but the post itself was very high-level and theoretical. So, I decided to write another post: this time on how the differences I mentioned before translate when comparing products?

I recently dropped my Blackberry and got Motorola’s new Droid 2 phone (on Verizon). Earlier this month, my company also happened to provide me with Apple’s iPhone 4 (on AT&T). Having played around with the devices and relied on them heavily for over a week, I decided to make a comparison of the two, not only to help myself think through how I’d use the devices, but also to help anyone out there considering a smartphone (warning: this post is LOOOONG):

  1. Neither phone is better, they’re different. In the same way that there is no one “best” car or one “best” significant other for all people, I would have to say the “best” phone for a person is the phone that has the right features/attributes for that person and makes the appropriate tradeoffs. In the case of DROID 2 vs. iPhone 4, each has their share of weaknesses, and each has their share of strengths and they will match different people’s needs and preferences.
  2. There’s still plenty of room for both products to improve. I think the “fanboys” on both sides seem to have missed out on this point – in their desire to tout one as superior to the other, they seem to have forgotten that both devices have more than their fair share of weaknesses. In fact, I’d say my dominant impression of both devices is more around “this needs to improve” rather than “this is awesome”.
  3. I’ve got a lot of more detailed commentary below, but my basic  impression of Android vs iPhone is very much like the comparison I drew in my post on Google vs Apple: the DROID 2 feels like a device where a bunch of engineers decided to cram a ton of “cool features” into a phone whereas the iPhone 4 feels like a device that was architected to support one particular user experience (but not others) as seamlessly as possible. What does that mean in terms of a direct comparison? In order of importance (to how I use the phone):
    1. Typing – Typing is extremely important to me as my main goal for smartphone is to let me write and respond to emails on the go. Given my years with the Blackberry’s famous high-quality keyboard, I was expecting to hate the iPhone 4’s soft keyboard. Much to my (pleasant) surprise, I actually got to be quick enough with it that speed did not become an issue. However, a few things plagued me. First, I absolutely hate the placement of the backspace key – its not where I expect it to be (having been trained by QWERTY computer keyboards) and is just close enough to the “m” that I hit it when I’m typing quickly. Secondly, the iPhone interface doesn’t actually support a landscape interface mode in all applications (i.e. the App Store) – which forces me to use a much more constrained portrait keyboard which slows me down. Finally, as good as the iPhone soft keyboard is, because there’s no good way to position your fingers or to “feel” when keys have been pushed, soft keyboards intrinsically force you to think more about how to type than a hard keyboard than otherwise. Enter the DROID 2. It has a hard keyboard which although not quite as good as a Blackberry’s (the keys seem oddly spaced to me, and they are more stiff than “springy”), still lets me position my fingers and type without thinking so much about how I’m typing.
      imageIn addition to the hard keyboard, the DROID 2 also supports Swype, a very cool (and fast) way to type on a soft keyboard where, instead of typing keys consecutively, you simply drag your fingers to the letters that you’re trying to type. There’s a little bit of a learning curve (in terms of learning how to punctuate and do double-letters), but once you get over that initial hump, I think the average person can get to a faster speed with Swype than they can just pecking at keys. In my mind, the DROID 2 wins hands down on typing.
    2. Exchange support – If you want a smartphone that can function as a work device, you need to support Exchange and you need to support it well. Both the iPhone and Android claim support for Microsoft Exchange with push synchronization. While I have some quibbles with the iPhone’s mail interface, there’s no denying that the iPhone’s Exchange support is seamless and fast. I have never had to think about it. And, on occasion, the iPhone would even notify me of emails before my computer received them! The DROID 2, on the other hand, is a different story. While the Exchange sync works most of the time, there have already been two occasions where the sync was broken and the device would think that a message I had already read was a new message. The sync is also significantly slower – requiring me to wait (sometimes up to 10 minutes) before an email that has already showed up on the iPhone and the desktop shows up through the DROID 2’s sync feature. I don’t know if this is because Motorola/Google introduced some intermediate layer in between the Exchange and the phone, but the iPhone 4 wins hands down on Exchange support.
    3. Google integration – I use a ton of Google services (Gmail, Google Calendar, Picasa, Google Reader, Google Voice, Google Maps, etc.) so integration with Google services is a key criteria when picking a phone. While the iPhone has an excellent interface to Google Maps (which puts the Android’s standard maps interface to shame in terms of smoothness and speed), its inability to do very much beyond basic synchronization with Gmail and Google Calendar and only webapp access to Google Voice makes its integration with Google on par with the Blackberry’s. On the other hand, is it  any surprise that Google services integration works best on a phone which runs a Google operating system? You can make calls using Google Voice as if it weren’t even there. You can easily apply and remove labels on and search through your Gmail seamlessly (without the semi-awkward IMAP interface). You can even access your personal online search history through Google Maps and Google Search. DROID 2 wins this one by a wide margin.
    4. image Attachment file format support – its not enough to be able to access email, a good work device should be able to handle the PDFs, Powerpoints, Word documents, and images that are likely embedded. Motorola had a stroke of genius by preloading the Quick Office application onto each DROID 2. But, while this app does a very good job of opening files, it not being integrated into the DROID 2’s email applications gives it a disadvantage compared to the iPhone’s in-line and integrated attachment viewer. Combine this with the DROID 2’s inexplicable inability to open certain image types in email and there is a distinct, albeit slight, advantage on file format support for the iPhone 4.
    5. Customization – I’m very particular about how I use my devices. As a result, I want to be able to customize the heck out of something. While the iPhone gives you some basic customization options (i.e., do you want to hear a sound when a new email comes in?), it doesn’t give you much beyond that (i.e., what sound do you want to hear when a new email comes in? would you only like to hear a sound if its gmail rather than exchange? would you like to hear a different sound for gmail and exchange?) On the other hand, the DROID 2 provides remarkable customization capability. Granted, some of the choices can be difficult to find, but the ability to customize so many things (including the ability to embed live, functional widgets on your home screen and not just functionless shortcuts) and to install apps like Tasker which let you customize even deeper is a big differentiator for the Android platform.
    6. UI responsiveness/slickness – Smartphones are expensive. They consume a lot of battery power. So when a device feels sluggish, I can get annoyed. The iPhone is, simply put, amazingly slick. No choppiness when you scroll or swipe. Great responsiveness. No odd user interface defects. While Google’s Android has made remarkable strides since its earliest incarnation, it still doesn’t come close to matching Apple’s user interface polish – the most shameful example of which, in my opinion, is the Android Google Maps’ sluggish multitouch support when compared to Apple’s. Come on guys, ITS YOUR OWN APP!
    7. Notifications – I don’t know a single person who likes the iPhone’s primitive notification system. Its overly intrusive. It can only display one particular message at a time. And, there’s no way for someone to get the history of all their recent notifications. And, as a Blackberry user who used to rely on a small LED indicator to unobtrusively inform him when something new happened, the iPhone’s lack of any way of notifying its owner that something has happened without activating the screen just strikes me as stupid. The DROID 2 is FAR ahead of Apple here.
    8. Network – I have mixed feelings here. On the one hand, I would  say that the call quality I’ve experienced on the DROID 2 has lagged what I experienced on the iPhone 4. Furthermore, my DROID 2 seems to have schizophrenic reception – I sometimes amuse myself by watching my signal indicator go from full bars to just one bar, all while sitting on my desk leaving the phone completely alone. The other side to this story, though, is that this experience quality has been primarily driven by an odd pocket of bad Verizon coverage in my girlfriend’s apartment – our calls from almost everywhere else have been very good. Also, despite my DROID 2’s signal indicator fluctuations, I have not yet observed any actual impact on my connection speed or call quality. When you combine this with the fact that my iPhone struggles to get signal where I work and in Napa (where I just came back from a wedding) but my DROID 2 had minimal issues, I have to say that DROID 2/Verizon beats out iPhone 4/AT&T.
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    9. Ability to turn off 3G – The two main things that burn out a smartphone’s battery are the display and the wireless connection. While its a pain to reach that particular menu item on the iPhone 4, Apple’s product does make it possible to turn off the 3G connection. Shockingly, despite all the customization, the DROID 2 does not provide this option. The iPhone 4 wins here.
    10. Turn-by-turn navigationThe DROID 2 has it. The iPhone doesn’t. And, believe me when I say this is: it is an AMAZING feature and completely displaces the need for a GPS device. I don’t drive places I’m unfamiliar with often enough for this to be higher in the priority list, but lets just say it saved my butt on my recent trip to Napa. DROID 2 wins here.
    11. Access to Bluetooth – In California, you cannot talk on a cell phone while driving without a Bluetooth headset. So, quick-and-easy access to Bluetooth settings is a feature of considerable importance to me. With the iPhone, the ability to turn Bluetooth on and off and change settings is buried beneath several layers of settings. The DROID 2’s pairing process is not only faster (although this is only by ~10-20 seconds), the ability to customize the home screen means I can embed widgets/links to quickly and easily toggle Bluetooth without diving through settings. DROID 2 wins here.
    12. image Chrome-to-Phone – DROID 2 has it. iPhone 4 doesn’t. This is a very cool browser extension which lets you send links, text messages, and maps to your phone straight from Chrome (or the Firefox clone of it). When I first heard about it, I wasn’t especially impressed, but its become a very useful tool which lets me send things which would be useful while on-the-go (especially directions). DROID 2 wins here.
    13. Absence of pre-loaded bloat – This is something where Apple’s philosophy of getting full control over the user experience pays off. The iPhone 4 does not come with any of the bloatware that we’ve come to see in new PCs. That means that the apps that run on my iPhone 4 are either well-designed Apple utilities or apps I have chosen to install. My DROID 2? Full of crapware which I neither want nor am I able to install. Thankfully, I’m able to remove them from my homescreen, but it annoys me that Verizon and Motorola have decided that preloading phones is a great way to generate additional revenue. The iPhone wins hands down here.
    14. Camera – To be perfectly honest, I hate both the DROID 2 and the iPhone 4’s cameras. With the iPhone 4, I find it pretty awkward to shoot a picture using the soft keyboard to both zoom in and out and take the shot. While the DROID 2 has obvious physical buttons to use for zoom and to take the shot, it has a lackluster flash and I found it more difficult to take steady pictures than I did with the iPhone 4. It also captures video at a lower resolution than the iPhone 4. In the end, though, I’d have to say that awkward use of the camera trumps bad flash photography and poorer video resolution: iPhone wins here.
    15. image Flash support – DROID 2 has it. iPhone doesn’t. This means no more stupid boxes on web pages which haven’t made the plunge into HTML5 video (because Firefox and IE don’t support it yet) or activating another application to watch YouTube videos. Does it burn battery? Yes. But its not like I’m watching it non-stop, and there are definitely some sites which you can’t visit without Flash. DROID 2 wins here.
    16. Voice control – Google recently unveiled its Voice Actions for Android application which allows you to perform all sorts of commands without ever typing a thing. While the Google search app on iPhone and apps like Siri have supported voice-based web searches, they don’t provide access to the wealth and depth of functions like email, text messaging (although, sadly, it does not yet seem to support Google Voice-based-SMS), calling up the map application, or controlling the music player that Google’s does. Granted, Google seems to still have issues understanding my girlfriend’s name is “Sophia” and not “Cynthia”, but the DROID 2’s voice-control functionality is way ahead of the iPhone 4’s and adds a lot of convenience when you are on-the-go.
    17. File management – Apple’s iTunes software works great as an MP3 player. I’m not so sure how I feel about it as the ultimate gateway to my mobile phone for pictures and applications. It also irks me that, because of iTunes, there is no obvious way to access or modify the directory structure on an iPhone 4. The DROID 2, however, looks and acts just like a USB drive when its connected to a computer. It even comes with a file manager app with which you can use to go through its file system innards from within the phone. If you are fine with the inability to specify your own organization structure or to use a phone as portable storage, then this is wash. But, if you value any of those things, then the DROID 2 has Apple’s iPhone 4 beat.
    18. Not proprietary hardware – You cannot remove/upgrade an iPhone’s internal storage. You cannot charge or sync with an iPhone without using its proprietary cable. This is great if you never want to upgrade your device’s storage capabilities, never want to slot its memory into another device, and never lose cables. But, if you ever want to do any of the first two or inadvertently do the last, then you’re better off with DROID 2.
    19. Display – One of the features I was most impressed with during the iPhone 4 announcement was the Retina Display: a screen with a resolution so high it was said to be at/near the limit of human detection. I can honestly say it works as advertised – the resolution on an iPhone screen is incredible. However, as I rarely use applications/websites where that resolution is actually necessary, its value to me is not that high (although the increased contrast is a nice touch). With that said, though, it is a nice (and very noticeable) touch and is definitely something where the iPhone 4 beats out the DROID 2.
    20. Device “feel” – The two devices have comparable screen sizes, but the DROID 2 has significantly greater thickness. The iPhone feels like a crafted piece of art. It feels metallic. Substantial. The DROID 2 feels like a thick piece of plastic. This doesn’t really impact the functioning of the device, but the iPhone 4 is definitely nicer to hold and look at and feels a lot sturdier.

    So where does that leave us? If you’re keeping score, I noted 12 things which (in my opinion) favor DROID 2 and 8 things which favor iPhone 4. As I mentioned before, which device you would prefer strongly depends on how you weight the different things mentioned here. If you value work-horse text entry, customization, and Google integration a lot (like I do), then the DROID 2 is probably the phone that you’ll want. If you value the Exchange/attachment support and UI slickness more, then the iPhone 4 is a better bet. And, there’s definitely room for disagreement here. If you think my assessment of Bluetooth support and notifications are off, then that could be ample reason to pick Apple.

Hopefully this was informative for any reader deciding what phone to get (even if they’re considering something which isn’t even on the list!). I’ll probably follow this post with a few thoughts on where I’d like to see the Apple and Google platforms go next – but until then, happy smartphone-ing!

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I know enough to get myself in trouble

One of the dangers of a consultant looking at tech is that he can get lost in jargon. A few weeks ago, I did a little research on some of the most cutting-edge software startups in the cloud computing space (the idea that you can use a computer feature/service without actually knowing anything about what sort of technology infrastructure was used to provide you with that feature/service – i.e., Gmail and Yahoo Mail on the consumer side, services like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure on the business side). As a result, I’ve looked at the product offerings from guys like Nimbula, Cloudera, Clustrix, Appistry, Elastra, and MaxiScale, to name a few. And, while I know enough about cloud computing to understand, at a high level, what these companies do, the use of unclear terminology sometimes makes it very difficult to pierce the “fog of marketing” and really get a good understanding of the various product strengths and weaknesses.

Is it any wonder that, at times, I feel like this Dilbert cartoon?:

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Yes, its all about that “integration layer” …

My take? A great product should not need to hide behind jargon.

(Link: Dilbert cartoon)

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Google for Blackberry Gets Better

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Google has recently overhauled the two applications I use on my Blackberry the most (Gmail and Google Maps) and introduced a new useful one (Google Mobile Updater) as well as made a few interface changes to the Blackberry Google Talk applet.

The new Gmail upgrade is the least polished of the overhauls. It feels a little more sluggish, although, thankfully, they’ve now included new bandwidth status messages to at least give you a hint of what’s going on. It also adds new features such as:

  • new keyboard shortcuts
  • contacts interface which allows you to search through your Gmail contacts, call those you have listed phone numbers for
  • secure connection — you now have the option to use a secure connection for all your Gmail interactions
  • drafts are something that I always thought were a no-brainer; unfortunately, these drafts don’t show up in your Gmail draft folder and you can only have one at a time
  • notifications are something which make the Gmail update much more useful; before, when new messages were received there was no way for me to know when or how many. New mail messages in my work inbox would result in my Blackberry’s LED flashing, a vibration or tone (depending on what mode I set the device at), and a change in the inbox icon revealing that there were new messages. Gmail’s new applet has finally fixed this allowing one to customize exactly how Gmail will notify your Blackberry that new messages have arrived– by icon, by LED, by tone/vibration, etc.

Much more useful is the Google Maps upgrade which now includes a new feature called “My Location” for those of us too poor to pay for GPS service and a built-in GPS device in our phone (and who can’t stand to re-charge our mobile phone devices super-often as the GPS service drains your battery like crazy). My Location is a feature which allows Google Maps to estimate your location to within ~2000 ft radius (highlighted by a light blue circle surrounding the blue dot in the interface) by locating the cell phone tower that you are closest to. While this doesn’t let you pinpoint your precise location, it makes the app much more useful. Case in point: on my way to our office’s Community Impact Day, I got lost, and instead of having to find some clunky means to estimate my location in Google Map’s interface, I simply used the My Location feature to give me an estimate of where I was so that I could quickly see the local streets. The video below summarizes:

Not particularly useful, but visually more interesting is the Blackberry Google Talk application updating to allow for Google Talk icons to show up, and a restructuring of the menu to be a little more usable. Alas, neither the rarely-updated Google Talk desktop application or the Blackberry Google Talk application seem to be able to interface with AIM the way the Gmail client does.

Google also very recently introduced the Google Mobile Updater which now provides one central location from which to install and update Google software (except for the Google Talk applet which appears to be maintained by RIM/Blackberry rather than by Google). This is currently only for Blackberry devices and, taking a page from the new Gmail applet’s icon, also informs the device user of updates and new products by change of icon.

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