The Future of Gmail: Less is More?


If you use Gmail, you may have noticed recently a little line of red type in the upper right hand section of your screen, saying "Preview Gmail's new look." You can see it in the screen shot below, which is of the contents of my Gmail spam folder a little while ago. No need to look at the specific items (though you can click for a bigger shot -- especially if you interested in great values in Nigerian bank loans, enlargement pills, and so on.) Just get the general impression:


Here is the same folder with the same messages a minute later, after "Gmail's new look" has been applied. Again, just get the general impression:


What's the difference? With the new layout, I get to see a lot more empty space, and a lot less "stuff." On the stuff front, the current layout shows me 15 email messages at a time, versus 7 with "Gmail's new look." If I change the screen-font size (on the 13" MacBook Air I am using right now), I can see 21 messages at a time with the old look, and 11 with the new.

When it comes to spam, of course I'm happy to see less rather than more. But I wonder how this is going to work out when Google mainstreams it. A crucial and valuable part of Google's credo is that measurement of user behavior trumps all. And maybe it will turn out that people really want to see less of their email when they're working on email, and more blank white space. But I'll be surprised if that's so. (If this is anything like Google's previous offerings, users will have the option of sticking with old settings, or using a "dense" version of the new settings with more info shown.)

Someday I would like to know the reasoning behind this "new look." Check it out for yourself.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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