Image: Gmail mobile
Mark Lennihan  /  AP
Google's new Gmail e-mail service is decent, but could stand a few improvements.
updated 1/10/2007 6:49:44 PM ET 2007-01-10T23:49:44

I've never wanted a BlackBerry and the 24-hour access to e-mail it provides. I figure I ought to enjoy my time away from a computer to read, think or listen to podcasts on my iPod.

So I was initially dismissive of the prospects of checking Google Inc.'s Gmail e-mail service on a cell phone. But within hours, Google's new Gmail mobile application had me hooked.

I checked multiple times during a dinner visit to my parents' house outside New York, and I checked while waiting for the train home at the station. I told myself I'd put the phone away once I boarded, but that didn't happen until I suddenly lost my connection as the train pulled into New York's underground Penn Station.

What's great about it?

It certainly wasn't the interface for composing messages.

I tried Google's free application on a borrowed Samsung A900M phone, and I found myself typing messages over and over because hitting the backspace key sometimes inadvertently erases the ENTIRE message. That seems a function of the phone, not the software, but it underscores the clunkiness of trying to write e-mail without a full keyboard.

There were also a number of features missing from the mobile version of Gmail.

I couldn't add labels to organize messages the way I could on desktop Web browsers. I couldn't retrieve accidentally deleted messages from the trash or save drafts to finish later. I couldn't tell which of my other Gmail friends were also online, potentially reading my mail or ignoring me.

Google says these features might come later, but for now, I have to wait until I get to a computer at home.

Think of the mobile application as Gmail Lite.

I could do all the basics involved with reading e-mail, and messages synch with the desktop automatically once I read or delete them.

For those not familiar with Gmail, the free service is different from most other e-mail offerings in that it automatically groups related messages into "conversations" — a series of exchanges on weekend plans, multiple people discussing the news of the day.

The mobile Gmail automatically opens the latest message in the conversation. Opening and closing older messages was as easy as highlighting the header and clicking the phone's "OK" button.

From there, I could choose to reply to the sender, reply to everyone or forward the message — just as I could on a regular computer. The application synchs with my existing Gmail address book and lets me add entries (but not delete or otherwise organize addresses from the phone).

The mobile application also lets me pull up conversations carrying specified labels. Unlike traditional e-mail, I don't save messages in folders and subfolders. Rather, I add any number of labels to organize based on both whom I'm talking with and what I'm talking about. With most other programs and services, a message can only exist in one folder unless it's copied.

I wish I could append new labels to messages, but being able to pull an already labeled message is a good start. I can also instantly pull messages I've sent, as well as ones I've "starred" — Google's way of letting me tag certain messages as high priority.

With mobile Gmail, I'm also able to view some attachments. I could view a JPEG photo attachment without problems, albeit on a small screen. I got the raw text pulled out of Microsoft Corp.'s Excel spreadsheets and Word documents as well as words but not images from Adobe Systems Inc.'s PDF files.

I was even able to click on some of the Web links embedded in messages.

But I was unable to open a ".wav" sound file featuring some friends and I pathetically singing holiday tunes, nor was I able to view images embedded into e-mail newsletters and other messages — only the text appeared.

Longer messages, meanwhile, get cut off, as do the miles of quoted text that linger when people keep hitting reply — arguably a good thing until I need a reminder of what someone said earlier.

Nonetheless, I've found the experience decent compared with the text-based mobile e-mail services I've tried and gave up on over the years.

That's not to say the application couldn't be improved.

Besides better tools for composing and organizing messages, I wish it would better synch with the phone's functions — the Gmail software didn't recognize the e-mail addresses I had separately entered into the phone's contact book.

Nor is there a good notification system for new mail.

The application is free — currently, there aren't even ads — and works with phones that support downloads of applications using Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java technology. Generally the ones from Sprint work but not those from Verizon Wireless, Alltel and U.S. Cellular, unless it's a color BlackBerry device, according to Google.

Data plan requirements and charges vary by carrier, but Google says you're generally charged only for the data transferred, even if the application continues running. Google also says it's up to the provider whether to interrupt data transfers when there's an incoming call.

I recommend the mobile application to existing Gmail users who have phones and data plans that support it. Unfortunately my 2-year-old Audiovox CDM-8910 from Verizon doesn't, and mobile Gmail isn't reason enough to upgrade or switch carriers.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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