Google is nothing if not helpful. It will suggest search terms, it will suggest driving directions for you on Google Maps, and now apparently it will suggest that you not send drunken emails late at night on the weekend. Is this what we really want from our Web services? Maybe Google could parse the content of my latest email and tell me whether I’m being a little too harsh with my mother-in-law in that email I just sent about Thanksgiving. Or maybe Google could suggest some other adjectives and adverbs I could use instead. Is that really the kind of help I need?
If we’re talking about protecting people from themselves, why not have a Google mobile GPS unit that can detect the proximity of donut shops or McDonald’s outlets and then send the user a quick text message: “Are you sure you want to buy that breakfast sandwich, Dave?” Just as the Gmail feature forces users who have had too much to drink to answer math questions (which wouldn’t stop my brother, whose math skills are impervious to alcohol consumption), the mobile service could force you to do some jumping-jacks or touch your toes, and if you were incapable of doing so it could disable the wallet function in your handheld.
I was talking with someone at work about Yahoo’s much-heralded launch of two new email domains, Rocketmail (which is actually an old domain resurrected) and Ymail, and despite much back-and-forth about it, I still couldn’t really see the point, and in fact still don’t. I mean, I’m familiar with the rationale given by Yahoo, which is that there are lots of people out there who haven’t signed up for email because they can’t get their name, or their favourite nickname, or whatever. And maybe there’s some truth to that. But how many of those people could there possibly be? Is this really a market segment that is crying out for Yahoo’s help?
A couple of other things that struck me: 1) Are people really going to switch that easily from email@example.com or whatever (or firstname.lastname@example.org) to a new Ymail or Rocketmail address? Every time I’ve switched from one email to another it’s been a gigantic pain in the ass, and I have vowed to never do it again — there are all those people you have to spam with your new mail. It’s a nightmare. That’s why I got a Gmail address in the first place, so that when I changed Internet providers I could just redirect my mail to that address. I personally know of several people who pay two ISPs, simply because they don’t want to give up their old email address.
And those are the old folks. Point number 2) Anyone younger than about 30 doesn’t seem interested in having an email address period, let alone caring whether it’s email@example.com or whatever. My teenaged daughters and their friends never use email anyway — they text message (in which case all you need is a phone number) or they use Facebook messages as a way of communicating. I send them email and they never get it. Do they have email addresses? Yes, and they are a combination of their names, underscores, numbers and nicknames, and so on — and they couldn’t care less. Not exactly a huge market opportunity there either, I wouldn’t say.
In a lot of ways, Yahoo seems to be fighting a war that has already been won — which, given some of the other things that have been going on at the company over the past couple of years, probably isn’t all that surprising. I was trying to think of an analogy for this latest campaign, and it’s a little like the company has decided to announce a new kind of typewriter where the keys don’t stick as much, or a better version of the pay phone, or a new video-tape recorder. In other words, WTF?
It’s not clear whether these updates will come as a pop-up chat window, or as a change in the GTalk status message you see below your contacts in the sidebar of Gmail, or some combination of the two — and it’s not clear whether they will only refer to things that your friends have done through other Google properties such as Picasa or Orkut or Google Docs. But if Ionut is right, then this appears to be another small piece of the Google Social (code-named “Maka-Maka”) puzzle.
Zoli Erdos is afraid that this could produce a tidal wave of spam from your Gmail contacts, who many people noted (during the recent Google Reader frenzy) may not be your actual friends. He compares the potential fiasco that would be involved to Plaxo’s notorious spam approach in its early days, but I think he may be overreacting. For one thing, you can choose to show only your “most popular” contacts in your Gmail sidebar — that is, the ones you email and chat with most often.
I seems as though Google is pulling the threads of its social net together, whether it’s shared items in Reader or user profiles or group chat. And the latest changes hint at a realization of the “email as social web” vision we heard about not so long ago, where your email is the center of a social net — I know that I already have chat and other features embedded in my mail, since I use GTalk almost exclusively from within GMail, and my Twitter conversations occur inside GTalk as well.