I found my own workarounds

inboxWith its Inbox app, Google is making a big push to help/make us rethink how we handle our email.

For me, anyway, it’s not working.

Having used GMail for more than 10 years and with more than 100K messages in my archive, I’ve developed a set of filters and habits that work well (enough) and are hard to undo. At this writing, I have close to 300 filters that mung various newsletters, group messages, and others.

I also disabled the Tabs feature that came out a couple of years ago because it was working at cross purposes to my filters. I’m seeing too many folks who are missing important emails because Gmail is automatically moving things into those tabs.

What I like about Inbox

Swipe to mark-as-read or to snooze is pretty cool. It takes a while to decide how long to snooze an item, but a new scheme emerges quickly. It’s somewhat better than starring items, because it defers action until a time specific. With stars, messages can hang around for months.

What I miss

All this tapping and swiping feels like more work. Maybe it’ll get easier.

As far as I can tell, there’s no way to use the email to create a new calendar entry. Snoozing is not the same as adding a calendar entry.

For example, someone sends me an email about meeting. The message contains the date and time of the meeting along with a sketch of the agenda and other pertinent details. I can click on the date and time, which Gmail renders as hyperlinks, and create a new calendar item with for that time, using the email’s subject line as the appointment title. The Google calendar entry contains a link back to the email for details.

To be fair, the Gmail app on iOS doesn’t support this, either.

I’m my own problem

We gave up our landline phone five years ago and use our cellphones for all calls, as well as texting, email, social media, calendar, camera, games, etc.

Even so, when we come home, I still miss the answering machine that gathered messages while we were away.

I know that I’m relying on habits, reinforced by these filters, to keep email the way I like it.

I have friends who still grieve the loss of WordPerfect 5.1, with the beloved Reveal Codes feature. Others manage to keep the Eudora client limping along with paper clips and duct tape. When/if they have to use another email service, they regularly complain about the loss of productivity.

I’m on a path to become those people.

Email is the hub of my communication, but there are already pressures to change.

  • Most people under 30 don’t use email unless required to do so by work or some external force.
  • I belong to an organization that does its best coordination by way of group text messages.
  • Other messaging apps and services (some of which I use, many I don’t)
  • For many people, particularly older folks, email is so loaded with spam and junk that it’s stopped being a safe, useful, or fun place.

I don’t know if new email clients, such as those from Google, Microsoft, or Apple, will reverse that trend. I doubt it.

Just as social media supplanted newsgroups, listserv group messages, and the like, other services are replacing email for the one-to-one and one-to-many types of communications.

A key element to finding new solutions is the willingness to abandon what’s old and, gulp, what works. The new thing may not work as well as the old thing. It may force a change of work patterns.

Change comes hard to those who are heavily invested in familiar ways of working.


Ten years of Gmail

I don’t remember my first email message. It was some time during the early 1980s when I was working at DEC. For most of that decade, email was all internal, sent from one DEC-owned computer along DEC networks to another DEC-owned computer.
As the 80s closed, there were a bunch of email protocols and messaging schemes. It wasn’t until the early 90s that I started using the name@company.com format on a regular basis.
My first non-work email address was through a local provider, now defunct, called iii.net (It’s now a parked domain held by a Chinese company.) It was run by a weird, fanatically pro-smoking guy named Joe Something-or-other whom I knew from DEC. We used that for a couple of years and then switched to Ultranet before buying my own domain and hosting services in 2001.
When Gmail came along in April 2004, it was invite-only. Google handed out invitations to a few folks and let those new subscribers invite others. It took until August for someone in my circle of friends to have invitations available. I signed up on August 25, 2004.

They promised a gigabyte of free storage, five to 10 times what other providers were offering. They discouraged people from deleting messages. They did this in part so that they could have more information to search and thus give you ads and also to change our thinking about online storage. Cloud storage is, for most folks, effectively unlimited. I long passed 100K messages. (At this writing I have 113,481 conversations, individual messages plus replies. I am using 11Gb for email and other Google services such as photos and docs.
Threaded messages were confusing to some people at first. In threaded email messages, the original messages and its replies are grouped together. It’s much easier to keep track of discussions, but it can be disorienting for people who were expecting each email to be delivered in a discrete chunk.
Some of my friends distrust Google and/or cloud services and prefer to download all of their email to their local computer. Others dislike the Gmail interface, the appearance of ads, and Google in general. Good for them.
For me, the convenience of having an email service that I can use on any device anywhere far outweighs the worries.
Gmail changed the way that we think about email. No other product has come close to having that kind of impact.

On Google maps and education

At lunch today, I talked with a former professor about some of the issues that he sees with his students. This, by the way, is at Amherst. The students who get in there did so because they knew how to present themselves to their high school teachers and admissions boards. They knew how to win.
Many student wrote papers that were focused on a narrow topic, crisply-defined, but with little connection to other ideas or domains. These students did well well because they showed a clear answer to a specific, albeit esoteric, question. Their research skills were limited to delivering a precise answer with no ragged edges.
If you ask Google Maps (or any GPS system) for turn-by-turn directions, you get good results. Using those directions will get you where you intend to go, but with a curious side effect. You are delivered as in a tunnel, without context.

Time was, we studied maps and knew not only the path, but also the frame of reference. Recently, I had to travel to a part of a nearby town that was unfamiliar to me. The person I was visiting said that his street is right near the so-and-so school. I used Google Navigation. It made no mention of the school as a prominent reference point. Instead, it said, “in 600 feet,  turn left.” I got where I was going, but Google told me nothing of the fact that this family lived near a school.
It turned out that living near a school was very relevant to this person and his wife because his kids could walk to school. Google told me what was true, but not what was meaningful.

Google Drive nixed

It took Google a long time to release its Google Drive product. People had come up with work-arounds involving storing files as attachments to Gmail messages. When it was finally released earlier this year, it was almost too late. Products such as Dropbox, Box, and Microsoft’s SkyDrive (variously named Live and other monickers) had filled the file-sharing, synchronization, cloud storage void.

Google Drive is an evolution of Google Docs, an online authoring environment for documents, spreadsheets, and presentation. Spreadsheets can have a form-based front end. Recently, I used this form/spreadsheet interface to build an online survey used by a couple hundred folks.

By allowing any type of file to be stored in then-Google Docs, Google’s online file service became a handy way to store and share files among teams. You can share individual files or an array of folders, sub-folders, and files with one person, many, or the world. You can even use it to host your web server content.

In parallel, I decided to move back to Linux. There are some tools that I need to use and, I hope, develop, work that is more easily done on Linux.

To my surprise and disappointment, I discovered that I can’t access non-document files that are stored on Google Drive when I’m using a browser running on Linux. In this case, I had stored some executable files in a tools folder on Google Drive. I wanted to download them to my Linux installation.

No joy.

In order to download non-document files, you need to have an application running on your system. Google makes its drive application for Windows, Mac, and various portable devices, but not Linux. Note that the error message is so broken that the link to the image is missing.

For today, I’ll need to switch back to Windows. Longer term, I will have to move many of my files to Dropbox, which does make a Linux client.