Productivity software

Google to Give Gmail Conversations an Off Switch

Google says it plans to offer users the option of disabling one of the most loved and hated features of Gmail: the way it automatically sorts messages into conversations.

Henry Blodget, CEO and editor-in-chief of Business Insider and vocal crusader against the conversation view, reported the change last week in a blog post headlined: "Google To Change Gmail, Add 'Normal Email' Option Instead Of Just 'Conversations.'" He didn't provide any specifics, just said Google plans the change in "the next few months," and attributed the information to "two executives at the company."

I queried Google PR, and got the following response: "We're always improving Gmail based on user feedback. A small but passionate group of people prefer the unthreaded view of mail and we're eager to offer them this option."

I responded: "You say you're 'eager' to offer them this option. Would you say you're PLANNING to offer them this option?"

And the spokesman replied: "I'd like to keep our statement consistent, but no prob with you saying we're 'planning.'"

The "conversations" feature works like this: Google displays all messages with the same subject line in a single column, oldest message first. Google figures the messages are part of the same conversation.

Personally, I like it that way. But a lot of people hate the conversation view. Technologizer's Harry McCracken explains: "Right now, when you click on a conversation to view it, the old messages are at the top and the latest one is at the bottom. The more I think about it, the less I understand the rationale for doing this: It requires you to skim past old messages to read one that arrived more recently, and flips the reverse-chronological organization of the inbox itself."

A friend who hates Gmail told me she tried to use the service to plan an event involving 80 other people and it was a fiasco. She was constantly losing and missing messages due to Gmail's conversation feature.

Blodget waxes eloquently and angrily: "No, Seriously, Google, This Gmail Thing Is Really Pissing Me Off:"

"I've already ranted in full about how annoyed I am that Google refuses to offer a "normal display" option for Gmail--one that allows those who don't want their inboxes transformed into "conversations" to just read email the old-fashioned way.

"I've explained how, again and again, Gmail's forced "conversations" format has caused me to miss critical emails. I've explained how I often can't find the email I'm looking for, and how I hate being forced to scroll down through a dozen previous emails to get to the new ones.

"I've described how I think Google's obstinate refusal to offer this simple option--and its arrogant insistence that conversations are just "better"--reveal a profound weakness of the company: The failure to recognize that mass-market consumers are not algorithms."

Blodget says Google is arrogant, it thinks it knows what its customers want better than its customers do.

I'd like to know what technology company isn't arrogant by that standard.

My colleague Rick Broida hates the conversation view, and recommends using Gmail with a desktop client. I showed you how to switch your email to Google Apps Gmail, and why it's ready for business.

Hate Gmail? The newly upgraded Hotmail offers an alternative, as does Apple's MobileMe service with new features in beta.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.

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