Todays 'Google, How Could You?' Round-Up

Routine personal disclosure: many of my friends work at Google, as does one of my sons.

Routine general disclosure: the world has been transformed, overwhelmingly for the better, by the tools Google offers -- most of them for free.*

With that out of the way: Google, how could you?

Feedly1.jpg1) The end of Google Reader. You can read all about it here at Wired, and at Bloomberg BW. In one sense this is "inevitable" and "understandable." Use of Reader -- essentially a very convenient way to amass, scan, screen, search, store, etc material coming in from RSS feeds -- has been stagnant or falling. And by all reports there is a very convenient alternative: Feedly, with switchover instructions here and logo at right. I haven't made the change but plan to. More alternatives listed here.

So in practical terms this is only minimally disruptive. The larger point is that, for better and worse, it's part of the longer-term, triage-minded "more wood behind fewer arrows" strategy under co-founder and current CEO Larry Page. Back in days of yore, Google was sponsoring almost anything that would entice users to spend more time inside the larger Google ecosystem. It maintained the Google Labs site, itself also now defunct, as an overview of experimental new offerings. Here's a list of projects and features that have gone the same way Google Reader is now headed.

The demise of Google Reader, if logical, is a reminder of how far we've come from the cuddly old "I'm Feeling Lucky" Google days, in which there was a foreseeably-astonishing delight in the way Google's evolving design tricks anticipated what users would like. I still feel that way, in particular, about Google's mapping, navigation, and foreign-language tools, and of course its mainstay search function. But as the company pares back its previous offerings, it is inevitably in the role of saying more and more often: You loved this feature? Tough! As Jim Aley puts it in BBW, about what the end of Reader means:
Serious RSS users aren't into it for the luscious jpegged beauty. RSS feeds, taken straight, are a wall of text. That's useful when you want to let news wash over you, to scan screenfuls of headlines without waiting for extraneous pictures to load. When I want to absorb a lot of information fast--which is to say, always--I don't have time for Flipboard. I want exactly what Google will be taking away from me this summer.

GmailOffline.png2) The 'new look' of Offline Gmail. You've probably said to yourself: "You know, I'm sitting here at my laptop computer -- or at my desktop, with its great big screen. But what I'd really like is a way to shrink the usable space of Gmail to what's available when I'm using a mobile phone with a three-inch screen. Why have more, when I can have less?"

If that's the way you think, the designers at Gmail have great news for you. They've found a way to dumb down "refresh" the UI for Offline Gmail (which lets you work with Gmail when not connected, for instance when on an airplane) so that what you see on a "real" computer looks more like your mobile phone. Courtesy of Google's official announcement of the refreshed look of Gmail, at right, is the mobile device- version.

What does this mean when you apply it to a normal-scale screen? Here is a full-screen shot of my offline Gmail account just now. The point is not any of the specific messages, which are bulk mail and should be blurry in any case. The main point is the overall look and how much less useful information it gives you to work with. Again, these are all the messages I see on a 13" MacBook Air screen. I can work in a few more messages if I hit Cmd-minus often enough to shrink the font, but still a small fraction of what used to be there.

Thumbnail image for ChromeOffline.png

The new look is "brighter," airier, more colorful, and so on. It gives me a great big colorful initial letter for whoever is the addressee or sender of a message I'm reading -- for instance, the big green 'A' above. Goody! I feel like I'm back in elementary school, using my Crayolas on big wide-lined composition paper.

On the positive side, I understand that the "refreshed" look offers more keyboard shortcuts. But as in the Reader case, what I want -- more usable info -- is exactly what the redesign has just taken away.

3) An actual Offline Gmail bug. The Offline settings allow you to choose how much mail you'd like to have synched to your local computer, so you can work on it or refer to it while offline. The maximum available is mail from the past month, and here is how the settings box looks after you make that choice:


Here's the bug: that time selection is for some reason not "sticky." Sooner or later, it inevitably re-sets itself to the minimum setting, which is mail from the past week only. Time and again I've had the experience of setting the choice to "past month"; getting on a plane or train a few days later; opening up Offline Gmail; and seeing the screen below, showing the the program in fact only has mail from the past week:


Sometimes it takes a few days for the setting to auto-fail from "past month" to "past week." Sometimes, a week or more. But in my experience, sooner or later the change always occurs, and it never self-changes in the opposite way. In response, my "pre-trip checklist" now includes going into Offline Gmail the day before any long journey, changing the setting from "past week" to "past month," and letting the program re-sync to collect as much info as it can.

OK, Offline Gmail people: with your great new UI "refresh" out of the way, maybe you have more time to deal with program fundamentals. Could you fix this bug please?

Thus endeth my "everything is amazing and no one is happy" rant for the day.

* Of course I am aware of the cliche about any free service: If you're not paying, you're the product. Still, when I think of the panoply of Google products I use every day, I personally feel that I've come out far on the positive side on the bargain.