The Atlantic‘s James Fallows — a technology enthusiast as well as a god to anyone who likes good writing — is not a fan of the new Gmail. How hard did he try to avoid it? When he heard that Google was about to kill off the previous version entirely, he opened a browser tab and loaded old-school Gmail one last time. That was on April 21. And he just kept using Gmail in that tab until Tuesday afternoon, when it froze. Now, his only option is using the new version (or switching to a different e-mail client, which he’s considering).
I’m not mentioning this because I share his antipathy to the new Gmail. Actually, I found “classic” version nightmarishly cramped and hard to read — a little like one of those Lilliputian bibles. I find that generous use of white space makes stuff easier to read, and don’t find scrolling all that onerous. So I like the lighter, airier new Gmail. (If you want to hear me rant about Gmail, ask me about its wrongheaded stance that threaded conversations should put the newest messages at the bottom rather than the top.)
Fallows quotes some of his correspondents who feel just as strongly as he does that the new Gmail is a productivity-killing fiasco. They’re not wrong: if a new version of something you depend on kills your productivity, then it is a disaster — for you.
(Well, one letter-writer may be mistaken: he or she accuses Google’s engineers of messing with Gmail to suit their own personal preferences, without doing any testing to see what real people thought of the changes. If anything, Google is overconfident that you can build great products by giving different sets of users different versions and analyzing their responses: in one case, it famously tested 41 shades of blue.)
With conventional software that runs on your PC, forced upgrades are nearly impossible. Millions of people choose to run Windows XP, a decade-old, theoretically-obsolete operating system. Heck, some people are still running IBM’s OS/2, which never caught on in the first place.
But with web-based services such as Gmail, forced upgrades are not only possible but guaranteed. It’s part of the price you pay for allowing a big company to manage your software for you. And the fact that Gmail is a free, ad-supported service probably doesn’t help. Customers who pay for their software have far more leverage than us freeloaders.
So even though I’m glad that Google changed Gmail, this I know: sooner or later, some web service I depend on will change in ways I find catastrophic. When it happens, I’ll let you know — and I may postpone the inevitable by keeping a dying service alive in a critical-care browser tab, as Fallows did.