Google launched the mobile version of its popular e-mail service in the U.S. several months before its introduction to the Canadian market this week, but it was a software expert at its Waterloo, Ont.-based lab that took care of much of the development.
The search engine company bought Requireless, a small startup, last year and has since folded it into its Canadian operation. Gmail Mobile, which also launched in several other countries this week, will allow users to view their e-mail on cell phones and open attachments.
Computing Canada spoke with Google software engineer Derek Phillips about the many business applications that this new program has, and, as Phillips stresses, collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.
Computing Canada: Describe how the user experience for Gmail Mobile will differ from the way users have been using Gmail over a Web browser to date?
Derek Phillips: The environment is quite a bit different when you’re dealing with a phone –you have a smaller screen, and something that is not capable of doing so many things. The main difference is that it is optimized for your phones. There’s less visual things getting in the way and taking up space on the screen. Mobile applications might not be capable of displaying the proper Web version on the phone and it’s small and the interaction is difficult, so we designed Mobile Gmail so that you can actually do a lot of the things that you’re used to doing fairly easily on the Web and now do it on a really small phone.
You can read your e-mail and it will keep e-mails together and conversations, which is one thing Gmail does really well. It allows you to search through all your e-mails; most e-mail programs on your phone only sort-of download recent messages, and with ours you can search over all your e-mails no matter how long ago you got them and read it on your phone. You can also view things like attachments, so you can get something like a Word document right on your phone. On some of the lower-end phones you can actually do that. You can do things like actually writing e-mails, so you can reply to e-mails and send them that way.
CC: How would you characterize who’s going to be using this. Teenagers? Businesspeople on the road?
DP: Hopefully everyone. It’s a real way to interact with people so in terms of communication, collaborating on stuff on the go, businesspeople who are trying to keep up with things that are going on and at the same time keep up with their personal life. But for home users and individuals it’s great as well because sometimes you might be traveling around and you don’t have your computer with you, and it’s really nice to be able to check your messages. Or maybe you’re travelling around don’t remember the directions you got but you can find the e-mail that was sent to you and figure out that kind of stuff. It’s really intended to be used for people to work together or just interact with people and that sort of appeals to people in any sort of situation.
The majority of users that we’re going to get are people just doing their own personal e-mail and things like that, or small companies who can’t afford their own e-mail servers, and Gmail is a great alternative to that, and the mobile component makes it that much more compelling.
CC: Any other particular business applications you’d like to elaborate on?
DP: People carrying around regular devices now are sort of limited — they have to be very careful about what sorts of information they keep on their phone and what they have at any given time because there’s only so much room and cellphones are not very well-designed for all that kind of stuff, so you can get at pretty much anything you want. It’s all implemented in Java, which means it runs on a number of phones as opposed to applications that were written for a certain kind of phone type. You can use it on one phone, and if you go buy a new phone, you can definitely use it on that one as well. So it works for businesses if a large number of people are all carrying different kinds of things — it’s very convenient to have something where everybody is running the same kind of thing, and if they upgrade or switch to something else they’ll be able to keep the thing they’re used to using. The fact is that it’s quite easy to use and simple, making it a lot easier for people to pick up and start using right away, rather than having to learn all these tricks or interface things.
CC: Google has been offering Web-based business tools for documents and spreadsheets. To what extent do you think Gmail Mobile will become a sort of fallback or “secret” office e-mail system for traveling executives?
DP: I suppose it could be. It’s not intended to be that in any way, but a lot of people send around e-mails and have typed it up nicely and they don’t want to have to do it again. Or they know people will be reading it on the phone and they have to paste it into an e-mail and hope it shows up properly — I think it’s very convenient to say, ‘Just send it to me’ and be confident that the phone will just send it. If you can’t find any other way of doing it, if you can actually get it to your mobile Gmail account you almost definitely will be able to see whatever data you want. If you are on the go, and someone sends you an important spreadsheet, and there’s usually just no way you can look at it, and it’s convenient and I think it will do something I hope people will like.
The application with documents and spreadsheets that Google has released — the driving factor in all of this is the ability to be able to collaborate, so you’re making changes to things together and working on things together and everything is available to you and there’s no sort of waiting time between someone wanting things to happen and being able to see them happen and so you know teams from around the world can be working on the same thing at the same time and that’s okay, whether it’s people working in the same office or working halfway around the world from each other, if you’re working together, you’re working together. So you want them to have the tools to collaborate in any way you can and having these kinds of applications and focusing number one on collaboration means that all these things are working together to make it as easy as possible to work together.
CC: What are the security implications of using Gmail mobile versus mobile e-mail offered by more traditional back-end systems like Exchange, GroupWise, etc.?
DP: I don’t know the internals of how all these other applications work so I’m not sure how the security implications compare, but we use secure connections to deal with things like passwords and we actually don’t store all the e-mails in your phones. Most e-mail applications on phones will leave all the e-mails right on your phone and the messages are actually there, where with our program it’s not stored on the phone, so if you lose your phone, when you run the application the messages aren’t there, so the information would be difficult to get a hold of.
CC: What elements of Requireless’s technology were integrated into Gmail mobile?
DP: It was a matter of taking the Requireless technology and making some small changes to it. Google had an idea of what they wanted with the mail application and the people from Requireless took a lot of experience and knowledge of how to deal with the cellphone environment and e-mail communication and combining with Google’s vision for how e-mail should work on a mobile phone, which brought about this application.
CC: If business users use Gmail Mobile, what kind of retention/archiving policies do you expect to see put in place?
DP: It’s really stored within Gmail. The way Gmail Mobile works is that it interacts directly with Gmail the same way you access them through the Web. But they’re really only stored in the Gmail server, so the same location when you do it through Gmail.
CC: What’s the scope of the handset market available in Canada to use the service?
DP: There are already people in Canada using the application . I mean, basically when it was announced in the U.S. a few months ago, people around the world heard about it on the Internet, so people from Canada did hear about it and are trying it out. The application uses data, so there are a lot of people who don’t have data plans now, or have very limited data plans and for the most part are concerned whether the application is going to use a lot of data. So I don’t think that everybody is going to use it because some people can’t or are too worried about the amount of data, but there are quite a few people using it within Canada and we hope that when data plans become more affordable in Canada, and more people are using them, then this becomes a great application to take advantage of that.
CC: How do you see the needs of Web-based or hosted e-mail service users evolving over time, and how will Google meet them?
DP: A lot of the time people spend on the Internet is spent on e-mail but they’re looking for ways to integrate everything they do, whether it’s a form of communication with their work or what things they have to do and what they did in the past. E-mail is kind of central to understanding these days, and who their friends are and their intersections, so people are looking for ways to make e-mail more than just a way of sending little messages here and there, but actually doing a lot of things in there and sort of keeping track with what’s going on with them. In terms of what they’re doing on the Web version or the desktop version, they’re kind of looking for ways of making e-mail seem more useful, a better way of interacting with people, reaching out to them.