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Friday, June 6, 2008

Gmail Labs: Experimental Opt-In Features

Google went live with Gmail Labs, experimental features for web mail client Gmail which you can choose to enable one by one. Note this may still be rolled out for you; if you have it, you can log-in to Gmail, click Settings, and switch to the right-most tab, titled Labs. You will then see an explanation that this is an experimental testing ground where Google engineers can try out new ideas, with a warning that any feature may “change, break or disappear” in the future (but that you can temporarily disable the Labs via a special URL).

Here are some of the features currently available – note whenever you pick one, you are not only required to hit Save Changes, but sometimes also to enable other settings (like keyboard short-cuts) for this to work:

Other Labs features are profile pictures in chat, custom keyboard shortcuts, the ability to place your signature above the quoted message, custom date formats, hiding your friends’ status to save screen space, an anti-email addiction tool that will block the screen for 15 minutes and makes you invisible in chat, as well as an experiment that hides the “unread” count for the inbox, labels and so on. Google in a blog post on the subject says more features are “on the way.” (And then there’s also still the general Google Labs, with non-Gmail related experiments.)

All in all the new Gmail Labs are fun and useful, I think. While users were able to use the Firefox Greasemonkey plug-in for homemade features, this will be more intuitive for many. Though perhaps not that many either, as some people won’t delve that far into their program settings, which means a Labs section won’t be a good excuse to not roll out meaningful features for all users in the long run. But as I mentioned before a features directory makes sense for many programs (including Google Docs), as it can cater to all kinds of needs and use cases. With Gmail Labs, Google couples each feature with a help group where you can post feedback, making it both an opt-in feature directory as well as a way to test Alpha-ish ideas. There’s a caveat with “Alpha” though: even when it’s disclaimed as a Labs feature, if it ever breaks in a way that compromises your email message data or your Google account, it would turn from playfulness to a serious problem with angered users (but perhaps that isn’t likely to happen with any of the current features).

[Hat tip to Miss Universe, TechCrunch, everyone in the thread!]


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