Gmail Contacts finally becomes useful

Image representing Gmail as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

If you’re a Gmail user like me, 2008 seemed like a lost year.  Google did give us the Google Labs features, many of which were nice tweaks, but there wasn’t a significant improvement to the core application.  2009, as you know has been quite different.  We’ve seen the addition of many significant features, with offline sync being the most important.  Google added another ‘missing link’ in the communications hub with a task manager, which in its current state is a bit underpowered – but we can always hope for improvements.

One of the most frustrating parts of Gmail’s communications hub has been Contacts.  When first introduced (I believe last year), Contacts seemed to add all sorts of random contacts from inbound emails that I received.  When I dug around to find where they were coming from, many of these new ‘contacts’ were plucked out of emails that had large lists of people attached to them.  Most of these folks weren’t really my contacts, but Google thought they were.  This was just one of many frustrations I had with Google Contacts.  Just as with the core Gmail application, however, Google has begun to remedy shortcomings in Contacts in 2009.  A few days ago, Google announced true Contact (and Calendar) syncing with many smartphones.  Along with that announcement has come a steady set of changes to Google Contacts.  Today, Google has added four more, very significant, improvements to the Contacts function.  Here are two of my favorites:

Official Gmail Blog: Four changes to Gmail contacts

3. Remove people from My Contacts
You can finally move contacts out of the My Contacts group — especially useful if you’re planning to sync your contact list to your phone. Prune the contacts you don’t want synced to your phone from My Contacts (click “Groups” and then “Remove from My Contacts”), and they won’t get synced.

4. Search across all contact fields
We’ve heard you loud and clear, and contact search now works much better: instead of just searching contact names and email addresses, it now includes phone numbers, notes fields, and mailing addresses as well. So, if you’re visiting the Bay Area and looking for friends to catch up with, you could try typing “650” or “415” in the contact manager search box.

Contacts, it seems, are finally becoming useful. Along with the Activesync feature that went live a few days ago, I can finally consolidate my contact information to a single source and not have to maintain a separate list for my iPhone and Gmail. This is great news!

Now, make Google Contacts (and Gmail) an interaction hub
Contacts would become substantially more powerful if I could see my entire relationship with a contact in that view.  Google lets you query recent emails interactions with a selected contact, but we know that entire relationships aren’t captured in emails.  I’d like the ability to add date stamped notes to each contact – so I can record other interactions with people.  I’d also like the ability to connect Google Calendar events to contacts.  And, while you’re at it, connect tasks associated with contacts as well.

So far, 2009 has been a busy year for the Gmail team, and it looks like we’ll see a steady pace of improvements for Gmail.  Hopefully, they see the value of extending Contacts beyond a simple electronic Rolodex and into a powerful contact interaction hub where users can truly capture many aspects of their relationships with their friends and contacts.

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Open Word document attachments in Gmail via Google Docs

Having enabled Excel spreadsheets to open directly from Gmail accounts into Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Google has now closed the loop with Word documents as well. Appearing in the last few days, as reported by the Google Operating System weblog, you now have the option to open Word documents directly to Google Docs. This seems to work quite well, as can be expected, however there have been several reports of issues with graphics laden files or larger documents (in excess of 500k) not opening correctly.

In my tests of this new feature, I was pleased with the ability to edit documents right on the Google platform. The push over to Google Docs from Gmail is pretty seamless, but it only works one way. Strictly from a workflow perspective, if I open an attached document to edit, I would like to be able to send the edited document back as a ‘reply’ email. Google Docs lets you send documents as attachments, and also establish a collaborative connection to each document, but I get many documents from users that don’t use Gmail or aren’t sophisticated enough to use the sharing feature of Google Docs (stuff like that confuses them…for whatever reason). I know I could make my edits, and send a ‘new’ email back to those on the original email chain, but this then defeats the purpose of the conversations feature of Gmail. Also, unless you choose to “cc:” yourself when you send a file from Docs & Spreadsheets, the edited document falls out of the Gmail tracking system…you can’t see the sent email in ‘sent’ on your Gmail account.

I may be the only one who notices this break in the Docs & Spreadsheets integration, but I hope Google is listening. The cleaner the workflow, the more time I (and most likely others) will spend inside Google’s platform.

Gmail’s Mail Fetcher service now available to mere mortals

Last month there was a lot of buzz created around a new Gmail service that was about to roll out called Mail Fetcher. TechCruch’s Michael Arrington wrote about how this new ability for Gmail to poll, or fetch, email from pop3 accounts made Gmail “perfect”. Well, after all the hoopla, it seemed that Google was taking its own sweet time to roll this capability out to the masses. So, I kind of forgot about the new feature. To my pleasant surprise, however, my gmail account is now Mail Fetcher enabled!

This is great news. I’ve been wanting to consolidate my old emails from my yahoo!mail account and a fastmail account that I had for a while. The primary reason to consolidate was to utilize Google’s strong search capabilities to find stuff that might be hiding in my old email collection. Now, with the power of Mail Fetcher, I’m able to aggregate my archives onto one email platform.
Arrington wrote about how this feature would allow him, and others, the ability to access company mail inside the Gmail interface. For those who have IT organizations that allow for external client access to their email servers, Gmail can now be your interface of choice for work and personal use.