Gmail 2010 = Lotus Notes 1995?

15 Jan 2010
Gmail labs
Gmail labs

The hissy fit between Google and the People's Republic of China has been in the news - including the "quality papers" a good deal lately. So, I went to see what's new at Google for mail users, and spent a while looking around the extended features offered in its Labs, where you can find the stuff Google thinks is going to be cool, neat, and realy useful for those of us who have failed to compress the whole of our existence down to the 140 character limit of Twitter.

It was the sudden flip to using HTTPS which really put me in mind of the comparisons with other email products. HTTPS, Google says, is the answer to concerns over the security of people's emails, and it had long intended to turn the feature on were it not for the inherent processing overhead to that type of network traffic.

Adding https to the list of featues scattered around in the Labs - which includes offline access to your Gmail inbox and cached sending of outgoing mails when a link to the net is unreliable - put me in mind of my very early exposures to computer-based email. And those were pretty early. I can remember going to demos of DECNET, with them breathlessly telling us about DEC employees who had met and then married via DEC's world-spanning internal email system made out of VAXes.

The most obvious comparison, though, was with Lotus Notes. Back in the nineties, I was managing a Notes system with some pretty high-profile data chuntering about in it, and teams of guys dialling in to pick up and drop mail from Namibia to London.

We even had a case of user identity theft in the middle of a legal dispute, which was rapidly shut down by a bit of careful RTFM to re-stamp the legitimate user with a new certifier key, thereby locking out his illicit doppelganger once and for all. Comparing the Notes architecture back then (all of which is still in the product, even now) with what Google is laboriously developing, as if there were no prior art, is pretty illuminating: Notes does smart replication between servers and clients, works offline or in low-bandwidth connections admirably well, secures the inter-machine traffic with robust levels of encryption, doesn't have to sit on top of protocols used for other things, stamps messages with irrefutable digital identities so you can verify who the sender really is. These are all things which SMTP (on the one hand) and webmail over http (on the other) are struggling to reproduce, the best part of 20 years later.

This is of course, why Ray Ozzie got the top job at Microsoft. Design one thing that stands the test of time on a global basis and you too can change the world. It seems an appalling indictment on the illusion of progress that Google has to slowly churn out the same product, in public, with lives and freedom at risk as it tries to fit everyone in the world into its cosy Californian version of freedom.

Before Ozzie joined Microsoft (which was when I met him), he was exceedingly proud of what had been achieved in the aid programmes for the Indian Ocean countries, by using Groove. This was his successor to Lotus Notes, and was a key example of a "light touch" technology for people with "too much IT", as he put it. In a very quiet and successful deployment, people in organisations as diverse as the US Navy and the government of Sulawesi had been able to collaborate across otherwise insurmountable systems and security barriers, by signing up - securely and quietly - to Ozzie's Groove initiative.

The contrast with Google's approach could not be more stark.

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