Pete Davison: Googlopoly

Posted on July 12, 2011 by

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It’s strange how the dominance of some companies (Facebook, Activision and, occasionally, Apple) is seen as a negative influence, yet in other cases (Google, Valve and, occasionally, Apple) their prevalence is seen as very much a Good Thing. This is particularly apparent when it comes to looking at Google and what it offers to the denizens of the Web.

Up until a while back, I’d flitted between various email addresses on a semi-regular basis thanks to moving house a lot and getting a new broadband connection in every house. New connection from whichever company had the best deal at the time meant new email address, and it became a running joke between my brother and I that I would eventually get to the point where I’d have an email address for every day of the week.

Fortunately, I managed to nip that in the bud, first with a Yahoo account and then with a MobileMe (formerly .mac) account which, I hasten to add, I got for free during the time I worked at Apple (and a little while afterwards due to them apparently not figuring out I didn’t work for them any more until almost a year later — wish they’d carried on paying me, too, that would have been nice). Anyway. I ditched the Yahoo account because of the ridiculous amount of spam it attracted, and Yahoo’s spam filters are beyond awful. I used MobileMe and was quite happy with it for a while, as I hadn’t used an IMAP account before and it proved to be very useful, particularly when the iPhone came along.

But then I discovered GMail, and since then, I find it very difficult to understand a couple of things: firstly, why people are resistant to Google when it offers a usability experience of such an order of magnitude better than everything else on the market; and secondly, why more people haven’t just ripped off Google’s ideas wholesale.

Take something as simple as the way you manage your inbox. It’s very easy for one’s inbox to become completely flooded with bullshit, with unread counts tumbling (err, upwards) into the thousands, particularly if you’re subscribed to any mailing lists or get sent endless press releases. It’s tempting to select all and delete everything, but you just know that if you do that, you’ll really need one of those emails at some point in the near future. You could file it, too, but then you run into the problem of getting increasingly obsessive-compulsive about your filing systems, wondering if a “Friends” folder is good enough or whether you’d rather subdivide it into individual friends… and so on. But no — in GMail, we have the wonder that is the Archive button, which makes the email go away but doesn’t delete it. That way, you can find it by searching, but it doesn’t clutter up your inbox any more. Genius.

And talking of searching, the most frustrating thing about MobileMe Mail’s otherwise pretty good web interface is the fact that you can only search one folder at a time. This is absolutely useless if you want to use it for the purpose of finding out which fucking folder you put that really important email in. In GMail, it’s a snap.

You can download all attachments at once. You can preview files in your web browser. You can set up your browser to redirect mailto: links to GMail rather than your soon-to-be-defunct mail client. And the fact it’s web-based means that you can get at it from anywhere.

And this, of course, is just GMail. I have to confess that I haven’t used some of Google’s other services such as Google Calendar a great deal, but I have been spending some time with both Google+ and Google Docs, and frankly we’re at a stage now where, for the average user, standalone productivity software is nigh-on irrelevant. Assuming you have an Internet connection — and with broadband and 3G adapters so affordable now, chances are you do — then you have access to all your stuff from anywhere.

The downside, of course, is if your Internet connection fails, or if Google’s servers fall over (like they did the other night when they ran out of disk space on the server which stored G+ notification emails) then you could have a problem. But in my time using Google’s various services so far, I’ve never had a problem so serious it compromised my productivity — and most of the time, it’s fixed within a matter of minutes or even seconds at times.

Most importantly, though, I don’t feel like Google wants to be my sole window onto the Web, which is where I think it differs from Facebook in quite a key way. Zuckerberg’s Facebook wants to be the only destination that people will ever need on the Web — hence all the apps, brand pages, games and other bollocks that clutters up the once-clean and simple service. Google, on the other hand, wants to help me out with things I need to do, and then set me loose on the rest of the Web — perhaps sharing some of the cool things I find via G+. It facilitates rather than dictates, and for that reason, barring them doing something really, really stupid I predict that Google services will be a big part of my online life for some time to come.

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Posted in: Pete Davison