Gmail Labs: A Perfect Example of the Evolving Web

Nothing says "Evolving Web" like Gmail Labs, the incubator for baby features that might grow up and make it into Google's free Web-based email service. Users never know when a new feature is about to land in Labs, so it's a little like Christmas when one shows up. I've always been under the impression that Labs was a back-burner type of thing for the Gmail team -- one they tended to as time allows. After talking with Gmail's Product Manager Todd Jackson, it turns out there is a method to Google's madness. In fact, I learned a lot more about what goes on behind the scenes at Labs than I ever knew existed.

"Labs is for Gmail to experiment with new features when we're not really sure if they'll be a hit. It's a place where we can throw stuff out there, see what sticks," says Jackson. "We get feedback from users from very early on in its lifecycle and decide which features to invest in and which ones to take away. We want to be able to move at the speed of a startup even though we have tens of millions of users."

Gmail Labs got its start June 2008, and has been adding roughly one new Lab feature per week ever since. Feature ideas come from individual engineers and developers within the company, they're not handed down from the corporate office as part of a master plan. Some Labs, like Tasks and Forgotten Email Attachment, are designed to be genuinely useful while others (Old Snakey comes to mind) are just for fun. Users have access to about 30 Labs so far with more on the way. Although Jackson wasn't able to give me a hint about what they might be, he did mention that Google is brewing 20 to 30 more Labs in the back room right now.

Once an engineer's feature makes it into Labs, they typically continue to shepherd all the way through the development process until a decision is made on whether to keep it permanently or cut it altogether. Sometimes an entire team is assigned to work on the development of larger features like Offline which, incidentally, is likely to graduate from Labs "in the near future."

"Generally, we've found that engineers do get pretty attached to their features so they tend to stick with them," notes Jackson. "Even when they're working on other projects, if a feature request comes in from a user or a user finds a bug, it's usually that same engineer that will be the one to fix it."

So far, no features have graduated from Labs but Jackson says the Gmail team intends to release some of them soon. "The criteria for release is really a collection of things. Primarily we look at user feedback, including how many users have installed the Lab and how many people continue to use it. That's the quantitative part. The qualitative part is what users are telling us via the user groups, what Googlers internally are telling us, and what we hear via IM, email and Twitter."

Of course, not all Gmail features take a trip through the lab before appearing in the wild. Video chat, themes, and other larger features follow a more traditional path. They are passed around, tested, and redesigned internally, then launched to all Gmail users once it meets Google's quality assurance criteria.

Jackson explained that all of Google's employees use Google apps, which puts an extra 20,000 sets of eyeballs on all its services. Since the entire company uses Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs to manage workflow, bugs and issues are likely to get caught well before they turn up during consumer use. He also says the added pressure of knowing your coworkers are relying on the stability of the what you're building is a huge motivating factor in making sure the product is really good.

Since you have to be a Google employee to have a feature accepted into Labs, users often have to find workarounds to goose Gmail into behaving exactly the way they want it to. Inter-operability with third-party apps would obviously take away some of that particular pain but Jackson cautions against hoping for it in the near future. "We like the idea of an open API, but it's just something we haven't gotten to yet."

Gmail turns five today and with such rigorous development, it seems hard to comprehend how it can still be labeled beta. Jackson says the team wants to release a full-featured product that meets the needs of today's user and Gmail just isn't up to snuff yet. He notes that even such basic options as POP, IMAP and rich text formatting weren't available until recently. Google has a vision for what they want the final product to look like and until it meets the company's standards, there won't be a version 1.0.

Jackson also makes the point that nothing will really change about Gmail once it sheds its beta status. "We want to go out of beta soon. It will be a solid, reliable product that should meet all of your needs, but it doesn't mean that we're going to slow down or stop iterating on it or let it become stagnant. Even when Gmail leaves beta, we want to retain the spirit that the product is evolving, changing, and getting better every day."

It may be Gmail's birthday, but it's users who get a gift. Earlier this week, the Gmail team launched Labs in 49 additional languages. Jackson says it's something international users have wanted for a long time but, until now, had to content themselves with finding workarounds to get Labs running in their native language.

Obviously, Gmail has undergone a huge transformation since its 2004 launch. What it will look like in another five years is anybody's guess but at least Gmail Labs allows us to speculate.

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