E-mail attachments are a funny thing, everyone e-mails files to themselves, so at some point inboxes start to serve as file storage. Given that Gmail offers over 2.5 gigs of storage, I’d imagine Gmail users do this way more than most e-mail users. I don’t know of any e-mail application that deals with this use of e-mail very well. Usually searching for attachments is a clunky function, and searching inside attachments…forget about it. So if Gmail provided an interface which made searching and browsing e-mail attachments significantly easier, they’d really be going into uncharted territory.
Gmail already does some handy things with attachments, such as viewing Word, Excel and other popular file formats in HTML view within the web browser. And when Gmail started displaying decent sized thumbnails of attached images, I think I cried a little.
Is this really necessary?
In a word: no. Gmail’s search feature already does a decent job of finding attachments. Locating the attachment within the conversation is acceptable, though it can be slow and confusing in conversations with lots of similarly named attachments flying back and forth. Also, browsing attachments could begin to creep Gmail in a direction they may not want go. The Gmail of today is a great system because its functionality is so focused.
But…it’d sure be sweet
The built-in Chat feature was hardly necessary either, but it’s part of Gmail and it’s damn handy. Gmail is all about a better way to work with e-mail, and to that end, browsing attachments would be a welcome addition. Browsing through attachments with thumbnail images would be particularly useful for browsing photos. Also, if the attachment list displayed a simple revision history of a document, e-mail could become a slightly better collaboration tool. Accessing a list of attachments would make it easer to resend the same file over and over again. Instead of attaching the file from the local disk it could be possible to attach a file already in Gmail.
The Gmail team could also leverage the “Google Desktop Search” feature and make it possible to search inside attachments. Such a feature could be added with minimal changes to Gmail as a whole, and seems the most likely addition related attachments that may eventually appear in Gmail.
I’ve created a little mock-up of what such a feature might look like in Gmail, which I suppose requires a little explanation. To start, I’ve added an “Attachments” link on the left; this would display lists of all sent and received attachments. Each attachment is on its own row with a thumbnail or application icon. Attachments could be “starred” which causes them appear with all other starred items (chats and e-mails) under the “Starred” link. Attachments could also be labeled, just like e-mails and chats. Under each attachment file name are three links, View and Download, would work just as they currently do on Gmail, the “Send” link would simply start an e-mail with the file already attached. Clicking on the row for the attachment, and not on the links, would load the original conversation that the attachment was sent or received in.
On the “laptop for john.pdf” example, I attempted to show a revision history by listing the senders of the file. The idea here is that all revisions to the same file would be grouped under the same item. So clicking any of the View/Download/Send links would perform the action for the most recent file. Also, in the upper left, there’s a “Show in Groups” link which would group attachments by type. This would allow users to quickly browse through all pictures, for instance, quickly and easily. I also reluctantly added an “Add Attachment” button which would allow the user to upload a local file not part of an e-mail. This single button is where the whole feature concept starts to break down by pushing Gmail away from messaging and into file management. It seems impossible to build such an attachments list like I’ve shown, and then still force users to continue to e-mail files to themselves. But at the same time this is exactly the type of feature that pushes Gmail beyond its tight focus. If such a feature were added that has nothing to do messaging and everything to do with convenient file management, where do you stop?
So Should They or Shouldn’t They?
Since Gmail’s inception people have wanted to use it for web based file storage, gDisk, Gmail drive extension, and others are evidence of this. Equally old are the rumors and speculation of Google’s GDrive app which would be a fully featured web based file storage system. So when and if the GDrive product does appear, accessing Gmail attachments would be an obvious feature. And perhaps, a separate web app is a better way to approach the problem, similar to relationship between Google Calendar and Gmail.
If the rumored GDrive weren’t on the table, I’d say that they should definitely build such a feature into Gmail. But given that it is, perhaps the file navigation is better left to a separate web app with a tight integration to Gmail.
Once the GDrive become a consideration the doors really fly wide open for potential features. Files could be more easily shared among users, or perhaps even made totally public, with a File Inbox and Outbox. If the GDrive provided basic check-in/check-out and revision history, it could be a great tool for small businesses and small projects. Also, if Google ever does create its own Google Office, the GDrive would be an obvious (and necessary) hub for such a suite of apps.