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Gmail’s face lift, new brains show that e-mail is far from obsolete

An example of "nudging" in the new Gmail.Google

I'm old enough to remember when e-mail was doomed. You know, way back in 2010, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was telling everybody that the granddaddy of Internet services was living on borrowed time. Zuckerberg was worth only $4 billion back then, so of course nobody listened to him.

Certainly Google didn't. In 2010, its Gmail service had 425 million users; today it is up to 1.2 billion, including me.

And this week, Gmail got a combination face lift and brain transplant. The new Gmail includes enhancements to help track important message threads, generate self-deleting messages, or put aside lower-priority messages till you've got the time to deal with them.


Some changes jump right out at you, like the new color scheme, the same one introduced to Google Calendar last year. In fact, Calendar is inside Gmail on a handy toolbar, making it far easier to access. The same goes for Tasks, and the note-taking app Keep. I rarely use these two apps, but that may change now that they're so easy to launch.

Other improvements are harder to find, and still others, like message prioritization, kick in only when Gmail thinks you need them. That means it will take weeks of frequent use to judge whether these add up to a big improvement. Google is rolling out the changes in stages, so keep checking under the "Settings" option for the updated version; those using it at work will have to wait for their administrators to enable the changes.

Still, Google's investment in the Gmail platform testifies to the enduring popularity of one of the oldest online technologies. Nothing as useful as e-mail could possibly die. It works practically everywhere on earth, whether on a rented PC in an African cybercafe or on your smartphone at a Red Sox game.


And e-mail is superbly democratic. Because it's based on an open-source global standard, all e-mail programs talk to each other. Not so for the various pretenders to the throne, such as WhatsApp, Slack, Twitter, and Facebook. Each is a self-contained proprietary network and connects you only to other users in those particular networks. I don't use WhatsApp and rarely log onto Twitter; many have never heard of Slack. But we all have e-mail.

The closest e-mail came to dying was a decade or so ago, when half the stuff in our inboxes was spam, much of it pornographic, all of it rubbish. But today, we barely see the stuff. Google and other companies have developed pretty good filters to block nearly all of it.

Still, e-mail has its flaws, but the new Gmail features chip away at them. For instance, there's a snooze button for handling important messages you can't quite get to right now. Hovering over a message in your inbox triggers a pop-up with the option to "snooze" it for an hour or a day, whereupon the message reappears in your inbox. Plenty of third-party e-mail apps offer this feature; now it's built right in.

One blessing of e-mail is its permanence. My Gmail account records what I've written, when and to whom. But some might prefer it if their more sensitive messages would simply disappear, like those on the self-destructing message app Snapchat.


Now Gmail users can choose "confidential mode" to generate self-destructing e-mails. The recipient gets a link to a secure server where he can see the message. After a day or a week, the message vanishes. Of course, the recipient can take a screenshot of the message or photograph the screen with his phone. Snapchat isn't foolproof, either, yet people love it.

Other new features have been lifted out of Inbox, Gmail's app for Apple and Android phones. For instance, if you get an e-mail saying "Can I phone you now?" up comes a set of possible replies, like "Yes, I'm here" or "No. Why?" Just click, and the reply is sent.

How does Gmail choose these canned replies? With artificial intelligence that reads your messages and decides how best to respond. Gmail is learning how its users think.

Gmail uses the same AI techniques in a feature called "nudging," which promises to remind you of e-mails that are important to you, such as those about credit card bills or travel schedules. As Gmail studies more of your messages over time, it will supposedly get better at knowing what matters to you — and on its own decide when you need a nudge.

Yes, it's the latest in Silicon Valley's algorithmic creepiness. Still, Google last year stopped scanning our e-mail messages in order to show us advertisements; now it does so to make Gmail work more efficiently. I suppose that's a comfort.

Or is it? It just proves that Google's ad business learns so much about us through its giant search engine, its world-leading YouTube video service, and its dominant Chrome browsing software that it doesn't need our e-mail data anymore. So the new policy doesn't enhance our privacy, so much as it saves Google time and money.


Besides, Google didn't make these latest changes with just consumers in mind. It has Microsoft to worry about, too. Google's suite of business software competes against Microsoft's Office 365 and Outlook, the most popular corporate e-mail program. I'd say Gmail still has a way to go in matching Outlook's power and versatility. But Google has plenty of time to get it right. Because despite what the doomsayers predict, e-mail isn't going anywhere.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.