“Gmail Labs offers several useful, but mostly playful, utilities for the application.”
Mountain View, Calif., -- Google, famous for its eagerness to try out new things, is letting users experiment with some of the new features of its Gmail. Starting from last Thursday, U.S. and British users of the popular Gmail service will have the chance to test the new features that Google employees suggest to be incorporated in the final version.
To access the testing feature, users can click on the new tab labeled “Google Labs” and tryout the new services the engineers have created, but so far it is not yet ready for mass consumption.
Users will be able to find the new tools under the ‘Settings’ option in Gmail, where they will see the Labs tab. Click it and view the largely unspectacular 13 new features for the application. Check the enable box to activate them and begin testing.
“Gmail Labs is part of our endeavor to get new capabilities out even faster and test features that are more experimental and may only appeal to users who want to be on the cutting edge,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. “Based on user feedback, we will decide which ideas to retire and which to convert into fully baked Gmail features.”
The company has started rolling out the transformation beginning June 5 at 6 p.m., but said it could be hours or day before every Gmail user has it.
There are 13 new improvements to the Gmail, from a modification in the way your signature appears at the end of messages to an expanded way to mark messages to a setting called “Email Addict,” which allows users to block Gmail and chat for 15 minutes while you take a sip of your coffee.
A style utility, fixed-width font, contributes a choice to the reply dropdown menu that allows users to view a message in fixed-width font. Custom keyboard shortcuts also let users customize keyboard shortcut mappings. This adds a new Settings tab from which users can remap keys to do different things.
Mouse movements lets users hold the right-click button and move the mouse left to go to a previous conversation, move it right to go to the next conversation, or move up to go back to the inbox view. Random signature rotates random quotations for an e-mail signature.
Another new feature, Superstars, let users’ markup messages with different colored stars and other icons, such as a check mark or exclamation point, to prioritize and sort them.
The whole idea behind Gmail Labs, wrote Google Gmail Labs Product Manager Keith Coleman, who is steering the rollout, “is that any engineer can go to lunch, come up with a cool idea, code it up and ship it as a Labs feature” sans design reviews and with little testing.
The overall initiative of the project is Google involving as many people as possible in the testing of the product, which the company hopes that will lead to a larger appeal to e-mail users. So far, the new features that had been added were first tested internally. Some of the company’s employees were allowed access to them, and then, if their feedback was ok, they would have been made public.
This new approach, however, permits any Google engineer to add any feature that he or she likes, no matter how silly it would seem. The code would then have to pass a simple test to make sure that there are not any internal conflicts in the product that could lead to a system crash, and then the feature would be uploaded on the site.
Finally, for pure old-fashioned fun, the Old Snake feature, which is a recreation of the Snake game, lets users enable keyboard shortcuts and hit ‘&’ from the main page to play a game of Snake.
For the time being at least, only Google engineers can add new features. “Any engineer can code a labs feature,” Coleman said. “Once the code is written and mostly working, it will get into the next product build that goes to users” through the labs feature.
Howeve, sooner or later, the company is paying attention in opening the system up to outsiders if it can find a way to integrate outside code.
“We would like to get to a point where more people can build on this. That would require something with a different level of interface,” Coleman said. “We are involved in making it possible of users and us to iterate on the product faster, so it is something we are interested in.”
The openness of Gmail contrasts with the arguably greater openness of Yahoo's Zimbra, which is an open-source project. Currently, Zimbra allows third-party developers write connectors, for example, between Zimbra and Cisco WebEx apps and from Zimbra to Travelocity, Yahoo Maps and Flickr. Gmail Labs is not yet so open; you have got to work for Google to play in that sandbox.