Burn your ships, Inbox by Gmail is here

hernado cortesThere’s an oft-debated historical reference made about Hernado Cortes burning his ships after they landed in the New World to encourage his men to fight and survive there rather than giving in too easily and sailing home. It’s how I’ve handled the conversion to Inbox by Gmail and, if you receive an invite, it’s what you should do, too, if you want to be successful with it.

The reason the Cortes story is debated is because now historians believe he didn’t order the ships burned but rather run aground and stripped of materials. Potato, pot-ah-to — either way there wasn’t an easy escape route when things got tough.

Those who follow me on social media or read this blog know that I’m a big fan of Google. It’s not a blind infatuation, I actually like their products and their methods, even when they destroy products I enjoyed using, like Google Reader. I have long enjoyed living deep within the Google universe because of the ways they find to integrate everything. Automation or at least quick manual access to my online life through various programs and apps usually makes my life easier and simpler. And I’m all for that, as I suspect most people are. But at times there are things with promise that come along that attract my attention, even if they aren’t within the Google universe.

The latest example of this was Mailbox, a self-standing startup that was eventually acquired by Dropbox. The beauty of the app, which started as mobile and then became a beta desktop app, was that it allowed you to swipe through, deal with or snooze email very efficiently. There were many times when I longed for GMail’s integration with attaching files from Google Drive or interacting directly with Google+ posts from within the email notification. But when I had a stack of emails flooding in, I went to Mailbox to quickly sort, swipe, snooze and delete them to get my head above water again. I should note here that the concept of Inbox Zero is paramount to me. I see my email inbox as a running to do list and as long as an email is sitting in there – read or unread – I have something I need to do. So by the end of each day, and sometimes by early evening, I have achieved Inbox Zero. That doesn’t mean everything is done, but it has at least been addressed, even if that means scheduling it to handle tomorrow.

Oh, how I longed for the functionality of Gmail and the efficiency of Mailbox to become one. I often wondered why Dropbox had to acquire Mailbox before Google could. I needed the two apps to marry so I could enjoy their companionship.

inboxSo, along comes Inbox by Gmail. It’s odd that it’s not Inbox by Google, but maybe they’re trying to show commitment to potential users, those of us who have been there done that with Google Wave, Google Buzz, Google Reader, etc. If they say it’s “by Gmail,” maybe we will believe that this time they won’t abandon it just as it’s starting to get good.

But I digress. Let’s focus on Inbox. Aside from its silly name (couldn’t they have come up with something less confusing than making us yet again use a common word as proper noun?) it’s a winner in my book, albeit in need of some tweaking. I suppose I should be happy that Google didn’t follow the other naming trend these days of obliterating random vowels and call it “Inbx.”

inbox feedbackI’ve been taking notes for this blog post as I’ve provided feedback to Google, or Gmail, or whomever is on the other end of the line. Sending feedback is easy, and they’ve even set it up so that it can automatically include a screen shot, highlight what you’re referring to, and black out personal information. It’s a feedback system that instills confidence.

So here are my notes so far, after having used Inbox on mobile and desktop for about three days now:

  • As I said earlier, you need to go all in. I’ve seen complaints from early adopters saying that what they do on the Inbox mobile app doesn’t transfer well to their Gmail inbox on the web. Well, duh, then go to your Inbox inbox (sigh) on the web and everything will be right with the world. Yes, many of us have invested time and energy in Gmail labels and folders, and those are still available to you under Inbox. But you now have a system of “bundling” available that seems to work well, so find a way to merge the two concepts and you’ll be singing a happy tune.
  • Speaking of bundling, one of the things you have to do is be a little patient with the technology. The initial bundles for Promos, Travel, Updates, etc. are pretty good. After all, Google has scanned your email surreptitiously for years, so they should have a handle on sorting it by now. But you can make your own “bundles,” and you can adjust which emails go into the standard ones or your personal ones on the fly. I say be patient because it may take a few days for Inbox to learn what you like and how you like it. But it seems to be picking up on my changes quickly and accurately.
  • One of the key features of Inbox is swiping and snoozing. That means you can select an email, or a group of emails, to go away and magically reappear at a later time or date or, because Google has this advantage over Dropbox as the mother ship, you can have them appear when you reach a certain location. That’s handy if you want to snooze an email until you get home after work, for example. One tweak that needs to be made to Inbox is the ability to adjust the default snoozes. On Mailbox, I could adjust what “later today” meant or what time “tomorrow” the reappearance would trigger. While you can manually select a custom date and time in Inbox, your defaults are their defaults, at least for now.
  • I also have discovered that when a snoozed item reappears, it is automatically unbundled and pinned. Unbundled means it just appears in your inbox, and not returning to the bundled group you had it in originally. Just because I want to look at something later doesn’t mean I want the category removed. And the concept of pinning emails by sticking a virtual stick pin in it is handy. It protects those emails by saving them to your inbox no matter what you try to do to it. That helps protect you from mistakes as you start to swipe, snooze and trash things with speed. But snoozed items don’t necessarily have to be pinned. If Google is listening to my feedback, they’ll know that I just want my email to pop back up, in the place I had it, and without a pin.
  • As for trashing items, Google has again opted to focus on archiving emails instead of deleting them. This happened with the Gmail mobile app initially until enough people hollered and they gave us the option of “trashing” meaning delete instead of archive. It’s an important difference and one that users should be allowed to toggle. Hopefully, that will happen soon. I’ve started using keyboard shortcuts in Inbox a lot more than in Gmail because I discovered the one for delete that actually means “delete.”
  • Formatting can still be a little tricky at times, too, as sometimes I’m finding things I’m cutting and pasting from the web into the body of the email being smashed together instead of formatted with paragraphs. I’m hoping that’s just a glitch that Google will address soon. I do like that there is a “speed dial” function hidden under the compose button. It populates with a few of your most-used recipients so you can address an email with two clicks and no typing.
  • The biggest letdown I’ve run into so far is the lack of proper integration. Sometimes it’s more efficient for me to reply to a Google+ post via the email notification instead of actually going to G+. In Gmail, I can do that and you’d never be able to tell I did it. With Inbox, my reply shows up, but so does a truncated header about who sent the response that I’m replying to. That’s unnecessary clutter and needs to be addressed. And, Inbox is not yet fully integrated with Google Drive as Gmail is. That means there is no easy way to attach or embed files and pictures from Drive. Sure, you can easily attach files that are on your computer, but unless they’re in a Drive folder you sync to your hard drive, that means you have to go get it first. That is soooo 2013! Google owns all of this, so it might be in the next iteration without much coding needed (says the guy who knows nothing about coding).
  • One thing that is integrated is Google Reminders, which is going to take some getting used to but may be something worthwhile. I use Reminders through Google Now, and having them populate in my inbox may be a nice time saver. It’s weird to see them there, but since I use my inbox as a to do list, maybe Google knows something about me that I don’t?

All-in-all, I’m happy with it. Is it perfect? Of course not, and maybe it never will be because we always want more than we can have when it comes to apps and software. Oh, and we want it free. And we want it handed to us for free with no ads, and without giving up any privacy, and we want it to never go down, never let us down and never make us wish we hadn’t switched email programs. But, that’s not real life and eventually all of us as consumers will need to start learning that.

Of course, we all have one major advantage Cortes and his men didn’t. If we decide to “unburn the ships,” all we have to do is make a few keystrokes and, voilà, we’re sailing home. But for now, I’ve deleted Mailbox because this New World inbox has a lot of promise.

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Image courtesy of http://kurtkoontz.com/

Can we be better strangers?

What are you doing with your social media network? That’s not a rhetorical question. I want you to think about what you are actually accomplishing by being connected to friends, followers and colleagues.

William Shakespeare wrote:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in time plays many parts.

We live in such an amazing era of connectivity. Sometimes I can't help but wonder if it's all just a theater performance with most of us trying to figure out what cue to enter on and, more importantly, how to deliver our lines when we hit our mark.

But then there are times when I am in awe of the sheer power of the era in which we live. Not too long ago, I was sitting in an airport waiting for an airplane to take me the 1,000 miles back to my home. It’s the type of trip we take for granted now because it is so easy and quick, no matter how much we complain about airlines and airports. While waiting, I decided to catch up on some messages in my G-Mail account. I forgot that when I logged in, my G-Chat would be turned on — that was until someone from Boston reached out to me via that service.

They were having a difficult time because of getting caught up in a rumor about a local business and, despite having reasonably good sources, were now in trouble with the business owner because they’d helped spread the rumor via a blog post. There are so many ways in which this story truly lays out the stage upon which we are all playing these days. The rumor was spreading faster because of my colleague’s blog post — faster than it ever could have in years past. The business owner was facing problems because of the rumor spreading so fast that he was unsure how to recover. There’s a quote attributed to Winston Churchill that goes, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.” And that was in Churchill’s time!

So this colleague of mine was reeling from what had happened and, seeing I was online and knowing my background, decided to reach out for help. He reached out in his instant of need, via a free service provided by a company that has made billions of dollars by upending the standard business model. He could reach me because I was on a computer small enough to fit on my lap and connected to the Internet via a wireless technology that allows communication at speeds unheard of just a few years ago.

Perhaps the most startling of all, however, was that this colleague reached out to me with a sincere cry for help even though we have never met. We know each other via Twitter, we have seen pictures of each other, we are connected on LinkedIn, and we have arranged one phone call just to get to know each other a little better. But we are basically nothing more than connections in a vast network of people tuned in to each other via technology.

I’m not suggesting that the plea for help should not have been made, and I’m happy that I was able to offer some counsel and comfort to my colleague in his moment of need. I haven’t heard how the situation he was dealing with ended, but that’s irrelevant to this post. My point is that I was there when someone needed me. I was there for a person I’ve never met in real life and I was able to help.

So, I ask you again: What are you doing with your social media network? Are you using it to its full potential? Are you seeking counsel and finding solace? Are you paying it forward in some way by helping others? Are you tweeting, chatting and updating your way to greatness either by providing or being provided help when it is needed most? The Shakespeare quote above was from As You Like It — and perhaps that 16th century bard was just ahead of his time. After all, As You Like It also includes the line: “I do desire we may be better strangers.”

Oh, William, so do I.

(Shakespeare photo courtesy of Wikipedia; cables photo courtesy of Phrenologist’s Flickr strea.)

Mr. Watson, I’m on Google Wave! Watson?

The first clear telephone transmission occurred in 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell reportedly said to his assistant, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!”

The telephone would eventually reach incredible usage rates and most people today could not imagine a world without the devices that are both a blessing and a curse in our lives. But what about those first few brave souls who bought into the technology and paid to have phones installed? Were they ahead of their time or just more gullible than most?

I’ve been thinking about this more lately as I signed up for and tried to use Google Wave. I’m talking, but no one can hear me — much like I suspect those first few telephone users felt. If Mr. Bell were on Wave, I can’t help but think his message would be, “Mr. Watson, I’m on Google Wave. Come here, I want you! Watson? Mr. Watson? Is anyone else even on this blasted thing?”

OK, so maybe that’s more how I’m feeling than Bell would. He’d probably find a way to make Wave useful, either with Google’s technology or by inventing his own. But for me, and for many others, it seems Wave is just a novelty at best and a flop at worst.

I’ve tried to make it useful. I’ve shared invites to get more people signed up. I’ve found people signed up and tried to start collaborative projects with them. Most failed to lead to anything more than collaborating on the idea that we should be collaborating.

I understand from his blog posts about it that Chris Brogan is probably one of the biggest power users of Wave, and he seems to like it. But the original premise of Wave somehow becoming an e-mail killer just isn’t materializing for most of us.

I have Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and Google Buzz. I use them all. They seem to make sense — even Buzz, although it seems to puzzle a lot of people. My point is that with all the tremendous Google products that allow me to collaborate with others and to communicate effectively while managing my tasks efficiently,why do I need Google Wave?

Perhaps some day I’ll use Wave more. Until then, I’m considering just dumping it altogether. I still check in every day with it to see if anyone wants to collaborate with me. Unfortunately, I’m only hearing a dial tone. How about you?

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)