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If Gmail had a reasonable client (like Outlook)

If Gmail had a reasonable client (like Outlook)

I don’t know who Microsoft invites to attend their regular “Plugfest” events when they discuss protocols and interoperability with Microsoft products, but I hazard a guess that not many invitations wing their way to the Googleplex in Mountain View. This thought came into my mind when I considered why Gmail still struggles to break into many corporate environments. Inevitably, I conclude that Gmail is flawed because it lacks a killer client.

I’ve said many times at conferences and other events that I think the Gmail user interface is like something designed with a blunt crayon on a damp Thursday afternoon. To be fair to Google, it looked pretty good in 2004 and they have done their best to refresh and refine the Gmail UI over the years (sometimes with odd results), but they have never quite delivered something that is as elegant as other browser-based email UIs. Even recent reports of a complete rewrite of the Gmail UI leave me cold. 

The current batch of browser-based email interfaces and the ever-increasing pace of change mean that Gmail is aging badly. The thought of new features appearing suddenly might cause heartburn for some and a few questions for local help desks, but it's a fact of life in the cloud-centric world of today. Just today, my Office 365 tenant "lit up" Outlook Web App with the new "People" feature that Microsoft discussed at the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) last month. OWA selected an interesting bunch of "People" as the initial group with whom I correspond. Here's hoping that the machine learning analysis of my email patterns turn up a better set!

I’ve often wondered why Google never invested in the engineering work to develop a smooth integration between Outlook and Gmail. After all, they are smart people and the engineering resources required to master MAPI is surely not beyond the capabilities of Google. It seems like it would be a smart competitive move in the fight between Google and Microsoft, if only because many corporate workers still use Outlook as the fulcrum for their business life.

It's true that Outlook can be connected to Gmail via IMAP4, a much-respected but now obsolete protocol, but the resulting interaction is neither smooth nor snappy (you can also use POP3, an even more obsolete protocol). You’d almost suspect Outlook of showing its distain for being forced to connect to Gmail. On the other hand, other email servers such as Zafara, have demonstrated that it is possible to integrate Outlook with their server. Zafara uses MAPI for their integration, something that must have taken a lot of effort to do right, but indicative of a feeling that surely existed that good Outlook connectivity was a prerequisite for success. (Footnote: Dave Stork’s blog contains some interesting information about migrating from Zafara to Exchange 2013).

But now that Microsoft is moving away from RPCs as the basis for interprocess connectivity between Exchange and Outlook, perhaps a door will open again. As explained in this Plugfest session on Outlook 2013 client protocols, the Outlook engineers minimized the amount of work required to support the implementation of MAPI over HTTP in Exchange 2013 SP1 by replacing the existing connectivity layer with WinHTTP, a standard Windows interface to support client-server communications based on the HTTP 1.1 protocol. This work is available in Outlook 2013 SP1 and a soon-to-come update for Outlook 2010.

The thought went through my mind that it might be now possible for Google to build their own module to use WinHTTP or a similar mechanism to redirect client calls to Gmail. I’m sure that the code in a Google module would have to provide some form of translation to interpret the calls made by Outlook into a form known to Gmail and vice versa, but that’s not beyond the wit of man (or woman).

As evident in Microsoft’s presentation “Twelve reasons why users prefer Outlook to Gmail at work”, Outlook has been a huge part of Microsoft’s success in selling email to corporate customers. The best email server in the world would struggle to make an impact if its clients look horrible and perform poorly, especially given the kind of massive, unstructured, and cluttered mailboxes that are now common. Could Google do better if Gmail had a real Outlook client? I think it would, but who’s to know until such a client is built.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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