Is Gmail Google’s Real Social Network?

    April 7, 2009
    Chris Crum

The Past

Gmail Invite Google’s email service Gmail was launched to the public five years ago this week. Back then, the service turned the web email industry on its ear by offering an entire gigabyte of storage to users who were lucky enough to receive an invite. Small potatoes now, but that was a nice chunk of storage from an email service back then.

For some of us, it was also a chance to get a really good address with our real names in them. I chose a simple first name/last name approach. It had a nice ring to it after previous addresses with other services that I had to explain to people who still found them hard to remember. All of the good ones had already been taken at that point on all the other big-name services.

The Present

Gmail in BetaGmail has grown by leaps and bounds since that time, and has gone through a ton of changes, and somehow still sits in beta. Who knows if that will ever change? I read an Ars Technica interview with Gmail’s product manager Todd Jackson the other day in which he discussed the reason behind the beta label.

"We have very, very high standards for the product," Jaskson said. "as we do for all Google products. But we are not ready to come out of beta yet. There are a few things that we’re working on, and once we meet a couple more of those criteria, we would love to come out of beta."

AT: Jackson said it is obviously stable enough for everyone to use—even stable enough for the business and Enterprise markets that Google is chasing with Google Apps. But the decision to drop Gmail’s beta badge hinges on a few internal criteria (or, perhaps more accurately, feature requirements) that his team feels are still lacking.

He goes on to note that some requirements like a mobile site, POP, and IMAP services have already been checked off. But does anyone really care if Gmail’s still in Beta? Many users have been happily using it for years and have no intention of leaving it behind despite an outage issue here and there. Even though it gets a whole lot of attention when it does happen, it really doesn’t happen very often.

Gmail is constantly adding new labs, making the service more customizable and useful in many respects. They are referred to as experiments, but they might as well be considered user preferences. I can’t recall ever having been affected by one of these labs not working properly. I’m sure it’s happened, but it’s not an issue that is exactly plaguing the service.

The Future

Google says it expects the changes over the next five years to be even more radical than over the past five. It’s hard to tell just what will be in store. Google has been pretty tight-lipped about future plans for the service.

Hitwise recently reported that Gmail visits had surpassed visits to YouTube. That’s pretty significant (especially since YouTube is the 2nd biggest search engine). They say that social networks are eclipsing email in popularity, and Google hasn’t exactly been known for their social media attempts. I have a theory though that Gmail has kind of been Google’s social network all along.  Granted, it’s a private social network, but with it, you can:

– send messages to friends

– keep conversations with multiple friends together

– embed videos/rich media in emails/chat messages

– send messages to people beyond the Gmail wall

– use search operators to bring up all photos /other media from any past messages

– Account holders have profile pages with their picture

– Creating a Google account essentially gives you an account to a much broader range of products in Google itself that allow for sharing things with friends (such as Docs, Reader, and Bookmarks)

The Gmail account holder has access to a lot of social elements, yet it is not really considered a social network. It only makes sense that upcoming changes would highlight and expand upon such elements. And what if Google bought Twitter like so many have predicted?

No, Gmail’s not exactly like Facebook. But Facebook’s not exactly like MySpace, and Twitter’s not exactly like Digg, and so on. Whether you agree with me or not, Gmail is here to stay, and I can’t see a scenario that doesn’t involve getting more social when every other property on the web seems to be doing just that. Luckily for Gmail (like email in general), it’s been social since it’s inception. Imagine what it could be with a few design changes.

What do you think about Gmail after five years? Tell us.

How about as a social network? Your thoughts…