The Great Email Schism: From Gmail's New Doodads To Chris Anderson's Messaging Manifesto

Do you really need—or want—"contextual information about people you're interacting with" via email?

Gmail

As part of Google's new social spree that just gave field testers Google+, Google's also added a new social feature to Gmail—the People Tab. It's a panel to the right of your Gmail inbox that displays "contextual information about people you're interacting with in Gmail" because "the people you communicate with" are as important as "what you're communicating about." To some, it will amount to another doodad on the already cluttered dashboard.

The People Tab crams in personal data about the contact, which "may include" an email address (really Google?!) or occupation, the contact's recent relevant Buzzes, recent emails they've sent you, calendar events, shared Google Docs. There're also buttons to let you email, chat, and telephone 'em. If there are several addressees, then their data stacks up and you have to click to see the extra data for one person.

It's either handy or completely inelegant, depending on your mail needs and habits. As it is, the new Google social info is all bundled together and loosely floated in a box that doesn't even have a border around it, up there at the top right of the Gmail window. You can turn it off by clicking on the little gear emblem to change settings. But the People Tab, that gear icon and the ten thousand other little buttons, menus, icons, drop-downs, shoes, ships, and sealing wax that populate Gmail share the same approach that led to Google "introducing" Google+ with a suite of 11 separate videos.

Gmail's plethora of high-tech functions is in direct contrast to the UI of Mail on an iPad, which is simple, pared-down, smooth, serene, slick, and a seemingly simple (though actually still potent) interface. It's dedicated to one thing: elegantly allowing a user to scan an inbox, read an email on a tablet PC, and compose and send a reply. Reading and writing email on an iPad (even if you don't like a virtual keyboard) can be a much less stressful experience than tackling Gmail on the same device, because form and function are so seamlessly wedded (see it at about 2:17 in the clip below). Then there's webOS's email app, on the new HP TouchPad—inspired by Apple's thinking (former Apple folks helped design it), with some Palm expertise and its own design polish thrown in the mix, it's another example of useful simplicity.

And on the radical end of the simplicity spectrum of email, directly opposite Gmail and its ever-increasing feature-packed UI is Shortmail—a new service that tries to be the "Twitter for email" by limiting emails to just 500 characters, rather than words. That'll keep you on message, and make you ditch that GIF-infested signature you always include!

This all begs the question: What's email actually for? And today, right on time, TED's Chris Anderson takes a stab at answering that question with his new "Email Charter." Anderson thinks email habits have got in the way of the purpose of email itself—fast, efficient text communication—and his 10-point list makes for thought-provoking reading. "Respect recipients time" with concise wording, he urges. "Attack attachments" that are unnecessary or too large, and slash those threaded messages that get included in a reply-to chain.

In the end, the You in UI might be the most important piece of the email equation.

[Image: Flickr user oneras]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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