News: September 2010

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This week there were several news announcements in the Gmail space that I want to share with you. First, Google is rolling out two factor authentication to make using Gmail and other Google apps more secure. Two factor authentication uses your password, something you already know, with a second, temporary passcode issued to you via your phone. That means if someone gets your password, they still won’t be able to get in unless they have your phone. When you sign in to Gmail, you’ll provide your password, then Google will text your phone with a unique six digit code that you then type in to complete the login process. While this double password may seem like a hassle, I’ve used several two factor schemes in my day job and it really isn’t a big deal to use. However, it is a big deal to someone trying to get at your information. The feature is being deployed in commercial and educational spaces first and will be rolled out to the rest of us shortly. No news if the feature can be disabled or not. Keep tuned in to the Gmail Podcast for updates.

The second update is that Google has updated their Gmail app for Android. They made the message navigation a bit easier and even have limited support for the new Priority Inbox.

And speaking of Priority Inbox, I noticed under Settings, Priority Inbox, that there’s a fourth section you can enable or even change the behavior of the three default sections of Important and Unread, Starred, and Everything Else. As I’ve mentioned in some episodes a while back, I am a practitioner of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. There are times when I need to tag actionable items in email, but they’re not going to be there long enough to enter and track in my system so I label them with @Actions. I’ve told Gmail to use that fourth section for all tasks labeled @Actions. Before Priority Inbox came along, I would occasionally lose items with that label if I happened to archive them. Sure, they’d still have the @Actions label, but they wouldn’t be in the inbox any more. Priority Inbox doesn’t do that. If there are any messages with that label, they’ll be on that front page even if they’ve been archived. That means actions can’t get swept under the rug (or marked completed) until I remove that special label. You could do the same thing with Stars, but I prefer to label things.

Finally, Yahoo recent quoted a study from the Fraunhofer Institute to state that Yahoo and Hotmail’s spam filtering are better than Gmail’s. To quote:

“The Fraunhofer Institute, an independent research firm, found that Yahoo! Mail users saw the least amount of spam out of the five providers tested, with nearly 40% less spam than Hotmail and 55% less spam than Gmail – meaning Gmail users in the study saw more than twice as much spam as Yahoo! Mail users.”

To make a long story short, the study was sponsored by Microsoft and represented six test subjects. So much for independent studies.

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Priority Inbox

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Gmail is attempting to make your email easier to sort through by releasing a feature called Priority Inbox. I have to admit, at first I was skeptical of how this feature would work since I’m one of those people who generally keep their inbox to 10 items or less. A few times a day I go through my inbox and archive the reference information, delete the things I don’t want to see again, take action on the quick items, and mark the other actions for later action. That seems to work fairly well. “What value do I get with Google guessing at the importance of my incoming messages?” was my first thought.

Let me back up a bit. When your account is enabled with this feature, you will see a red message in the upper right by your login name indicating Priority Inbox has been turned on. If you like, there is a short video in the pop up window that helps explain the benefits of priority inbox. Click the “Try it now” button in that same pop up window. Once enabled, Gmail does a few things. First, it creates a new link on the left called Priority Inbox. The regular Inbox is still available just below that link. Second, it goes through your mail and makes some guesses at what mail is important to you and labels them as Important. Finally, the conversation index is divided in to four sections. By default, three of these are turned on. They are for messages labeled Important, Starred, and Everything Else. You can change these and even add a fourth section by going in the Settings under the Priority Inbox tab. You can also tweak a few of the other priority inbox settings from that same screen including the option to not show the priority inbox at all.

Like spam filters, the priority inbox needs to learn what’s important to you. Gmail has one of the best spam filters around and it’s these same methods that help learn and identify important email as well. If it gets something wrong, you can use the new + and – tags on the button bar just above the conversation index to help it get smarter. After only a few days and a few keystrokes, I’m noticing a marked improvement.

It is possible to abuse the priority inbox if you mark too many things important. What does “important” mean? That’s up to you. If you mark too many things important and find that 95% of all of your email is ending up in the Important section, then it has lost its value.

One other thing about priority inbox, I noticed that the shortcut keys g-i take you back to the priority inbox if you have it enabled. There doesn’t appear to be a shortcut for the standard inbox while priority inbox is around, but if you find one, let me know about it.

One final note, Google Voice has added email notifications for missed calls. This is not so much a quick tip, but an FYI . While this isn’t terribly useful for people with Android phones who see the missed call on their handset, it is nice if you are on your desktop where you can have the missed calls noted in your Google Voice inbox or emailed to you.

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Make Calls, Calendar Update, Double Sent Mail

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Make Voice Calls

Good news for Gmail users. Gmail has enabled voice calling from within Gmail. Now you can use your computer’s microphone and speakers (or a USB headset if you like) to make outgoing calls for free in U.S. or Canada and very inexpensive calls many other countries.

To see if you have this feature yet, just look on the left side of your screen under chat and look for the option “Call Phone”. Just click on it and enter a contact’s name or start dialing. The other person does not need to have a Gmail account to make this work. You can call mobile phones or land lines. If you happen to have a Google Voice account associated with your Gmail account, the receiving party will see the incoming call with your Google voice number. If you choose, incoming calls to your Google Voice number can be received right from within Gmail. Now I’m really glad I put that Google Voice number on my latest business cards!

FYI – you will need to install the voice and video chat plugin which you can get at gmail.com/videochat.

Other Internet telephony providers have typically charged for outgoing phone calls. Companies like Skype are extremely inexpensive, but free trumps cheap any day for me.

So far, I have only received one call from someone using Gmail. A couple nights ago I received a call on my mobile phone from my friend Kreg in South Carolina who couldn’t resist testing it out before me. The call quality was about the same as typical mobile phone, with the notable exception of any dropouts hiccups or other artifacts typically associated with mobile calls. It wasn’t quite as good as our Skype to Skype calls, but to call computer to phone for free, I’d say it warrants more usage. Based on initial reports of 1,000,000 calls in the first 24 hours, I’d say it’s off to a good start.

Google reports that all US Gmail accounts have the new feature enabled and they will be rolling it out to other countries soon.

Recurring Event Update

If you haven’t done so recently, take a look at the details of a Google Calendar event. There are now two tabs: one for the event details and one to help you find a time with another Google invitee. They also cleaned up the recurring appointment functionality. When you click on the “repeat” checkbox just under the event title, a new window appears with the details of the event. It is now much easier to create a recurring event, although I still don’t see a “Last” feature for my meeting that happens on the last Wednesday of the month.

Double Sent Mail Bug Fixed

Finally, there were some reports of some Gmail messages being re-sent automatically that affected hundreds of users. Google Employee “Mr Evan” reports that the issue has now been resolved. While this wasn’t a widespread problem, it certainly was annoying when a Gmail user sent a message only to get a response back saying “I already got your message.” If you were affected, rest assured that this bug is resolved.

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News – August 20, 2010

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This past week were three main stories for Gmail and related apps. First, a new labs feature allows you to search in to your Google docs. Next, Gmail on the iPad got a nice touch to clear up some confusion, and finally, Google now supports voice and video chat on Linux.

First up, you can give Gmail the ability to reach in to your Google docs by enabling the labs feature called Apps Search. Turn this on the same way you would any other labs feature by clicking the Settings link in the upper right, click the Labs tab, scroll down to the Apps Search section, click Enable, the click Save Changes at the bottom of the screen. Now when you do a search, Gmail will not only list your search results in a familiar conversation index listing, but also include a section at the bottom for documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and other Google docs data that matched your search criteria.

As a side note, I noticed that the labs features are now grouped with the enabled labs at the top and the disabled, or available, labs at the bottom. If you’re looking for something new, start scrolling until you get to the Available Labs section to save a bit of time.

Next, Gmail made a slight adjustment to the user interface on the iPad to clear up some confusion that I, and some of you, have experienced. As you may have noticed, when you select messages on the left, a panel appears at the bottom left with buttons for Archive, Delete, and other options. For dealing with individual messages, the buttons on the upper right were used. Thankfully, Google was able to take advantage of CSS3 technology and remove the extra set of buttons on the left. Now when you select multiple messages, they are stacked in the window on the right. The buttons on the lower left never appear and you only need to use the right side buttons for archiving, deleting, and other actions. Perhaps they’ll hear my other request make it easier to apply labels instead of scrolling and scrolling and scrolling.

Finally, Ubuntu and other Debian-based Linux users can now use voice and video chat. Just visit gmail.com/videochat to download the plugin. Google doesn’t often neglect the Linux community, but they took almost two years to implement this feature. They promise to have RPM support soon.

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User Interface Update – Aug 2010

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If you’re a regular Gmail Podcast listener, you’ll notice that I recently updated the Contacts and Groups podcast to be more accurate with the current user interface. That was done just in time for Google to update the interface one more time. While most of the Gmail Podcast content is evergreen, every once in a while they do a feature update that renders some of this content obsolete. I just didn’t think it would be a week after I released a cast on groups.

So what’s new with the interface? At first glance, not much. If you look closer at the main page, you’ll see on the left, Mail, Contacts, and Tasks are now grouped together. If you hover over the Mail link, you’ll see a little dash appear to the right. Clicking that expands or collapses the trio of Mail, Contacts, and Tasks links to clean up your screen a bit. Also, Compose Mail is now a button instead of a link, and the other gadgets below the labels have been cleaned up.

The buttons and links at the top of the conversation index have also been cleaned up. Rather than links to select all, none, read, unread, starred, and so on, there is now drop down list to the left that has multiple selections. A nice touch in my opinion. Another nice touch that is often overlooked is the fonts. It’s subtle, but I think it gives Gmail a crisper look.

Finally, the main changes to this update in Gmail have been to the contacts and groups management. When you click on contacts, the three column display has been replaced with a list that looks more like the way conversations are managed in Gmail. Groups are applied like labels, although they are displayed on the far right of each entry instead of somewhere in the middle like conversation labels. Like the conversation index, a dropdown list is available above the list to the far left of the buttons to select all or none of your contacts. If you select one or more of your contacts, and go back to the conversation index, when you come back, those same contacts are still selected. Nice job Google developers! Some other very nice features like sorting by last name (available under the More Actions drop down list), and my favorite, keyboard shortcuts have also been added.

Clicking any one of the contacts presents a display that is significantly different than its predecessor. The layout includes all the standard fields you would expect, photo, name, phone, address, email. It also has a larger notes section and at the bottom of the left side there is an “Add” dropdown list that allows you to add additional fields in case someone has more than one email address, phone number, a nickname, or whatever. You can even create your own customer fields. And of course, there’s a link to display recent conversations with that contact which can really help with those old archived conversations.

As mentioned earlier, managing group membership with your contacts is now very similar to applying labels to your email conversations. If you are at the contact index, you can search, select, and use the Groups dropdown to apply or remove the groups you wish. I did a quick search for Jerry, came up with six hits, quickly selected all and created a new group called Jerry. Now if I want to send a quick message to all my contacts named Jerry, I compose a new message and start typing “Jerry” in the to field. Along with the six possibilities, I also get one with the suffix “(group)” and I send to all six at the same time.

From the Contact details screen just pull down the Groups list and select the groups you wish to apply or remove. You can even type a new name and create a new group, again much like labels.

You will probably notice that there is no Save Changes button on the contact screen. That’s because all changes to the contacts are now auto saved. Thank you again Google Developers.

And don’t forget about hitting “?” on the new contacts screen if you have shortcuts enabled in your settings to manage your contacts more effectively and efficiently.

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Groups

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I was going over the Gmail Podcast archives and discovered I covered groups several years ago. After listening to the podcast, I found that many features of managing contacts and groups had been improved so I thought it was time for an update. Groups allow you to organize and manage related collections of contacts and also address them at the same time. This podcast covers five main topics:

  • Creating a new group
  • Adding and removing contacts form a group
  • Renaming a group
  • Deleting a group
  • Sending mail to a group

Creating a group
Let’s begin by creating a group. Start by clicking on the Contacts list on the left side of the screen. You’ll be presented with a screen with three columns. The first lists your groups, the middle column lists the members of the group you select, and the right column displays the properties of the contact or group selected.

Next, select one or more contacts from the middle column by clicking on them, using the checkboxes next to each name, or using shift-click, or control-click to select multiple contacts, then click the icon just above the left column with a plus and two people. A dialog will appear prompting you for a name for the new group. Enter a name and click OK. The selected names will automatically be placed in the new group. If you don’t want to select any names, you can still create a new group using the same icon.

Adding/Removing people to a  group
Once you have created your group, you can add contacts by selecting the names in the same way as above, checking the checkboxes, shift-click, or control-click ranges of names, then use the Groups button above the right column to add them to an existing group, or create a new group.

To remove someone from a group, use the same selection method and Groups button. When the selections drop down, the appropriate groups will be presented for that person or persons under “Remove from…”

Renaming a group
You can also rename a group by highlighting the group name, and clicking the Edit button on the right column. Just type in the new name and click Save.

Deleting a group
If you find you no longer need a group, simply select the group for the left column, and click the Delete group button above the right column. This will remove the group and not the contact information. If Kreg is a member of group Podcast Listeners, and I delete Podcast Listeners, I still have all of Kreg’s information. You will be given a warning because removing a group cannot be undone.

Using a group
Now that you’ve got groups defined, you can simply type the name of the group in the To, Cc, or Bcc fields when you are composing or replying to a message. Groups will be listed in the auto-complete list in italics and have a suffix of “(group)”. After entering the name of the group, hit the tab or enter key and Gmail will replace the group name with the names of the contacts in that group.

You can create groups with as many contacts you like. However, in an effort to fight spam, Gmail won’t let you send a message to a group containing more than 500.

Tip: As a time saver, add people directly to a group at import time with the checkbox that reads “Also add these imported contacts to ” and select the group you want to add them

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Sign in to Multiple Gmail Accounts

Few things from Google fall short of “fantastic” for me, but the new feature to login to multiple Google accounts at once was met with a solid “meh”.

My original thought was “great, now I don’t need all those accounts under ‘send mail as’.” Such was not the case this time. Per Google’s posting on the Gmail Blog, they say you can login to two Google accounts at once, however there are some gotchas.

1) Not all Google services support multiple account sign-in yet. For the services that don’t support it (like Blogger and Picasa Web Albums), you’ll be defaulted to the first account you signed in with during that browser session. So if you click a link from Gmail to Blogger, for example, you’ll be logged into Blogger with the first account you signed in with, even if you clicked the link to Blogger from your second Gmail account.

2) We’re still working on making Gmail and Calendar work offline with multiple sign-in. If you rely on offline access, you probably don’t want to enable this feature quite yet.

3) Multiple account sign-in only works on desktop browsers for now, so if you use Gmail on your phone’s browser you won’t see this option yet.

Since Google Apps customers can already sign in to their accounts at the same time as their personal Google Accounts, we won’t be adding this new feature to Google Apps until the new infrastructure is in place.

This doesn’t do anything for me. It only supports up to three Google accounts, not all apps are supported, and hosted email addresses won’t be coming along for a while. What’s the big deal everyone has been jumping up and down for? OK, setting up shared calendars can be a bit of a pain, but once it’s done, you get to use those calendars on your iPhone, iPad, iCal, and other places. As for shared Gmail, that’s already been answered and I’d rather switch at the top of the message using a centralized account with the Send Mail As feature (read: change the sender on the fly) than switch to a different account to check that mail.

For usefulness, I give this feature a 2 out of 10. Maybe I’ll see more value when the hosted accounts can play.

Multiple Google Calendar Sync With iPhone

I love my iPhone4 and I love Google calendar. What I didn’t like was how difficult it was to pull these two together. Until now…

About a year ago I setup my iPod Touch to sync with my Google calendar, my wife’s calendar, and a couple others. I recall going to the various calendar settings to get obscure IDs, then setting each one as a separate account in the device’s settings, and modifying URLs under the advanced settings. To say it was painful was an understatement.

Last night when I started looking for those old Google help files, I was surprised to find a much easier way.

The short answer,

  1. Point your mobile browser to http://m.google.com/sync,
  2. Choose which calendars you want to sync
  3. Go look at your calendar on your iPhone and you’ll see the new calendars show up.

It’s as simple as that. I’ve done this on my iPhone 4 and my iPad and just love having the various calendars at my fingertips to avoid the annoying situation where I book an appointment when my wife already had something in that spot.

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Google Apps In The Enterprise

Colleague and fellow Friends in Tech member, George Starcher joins me for a look at his experience deploying Google Apps in the enterprise. This podcast runs a little longer than our normal format because it digs in to many aspects you should be aware of if you are thinking of replacing your legacy apps with a cloud solution.

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Default Email Program

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One of the things that has annoyed me about web-based mail services like Gmail is when I click on an email link on a web page or document, the computer starts up Outlook, Mac Mail, or some other locally installed mail app instead of my favorite – Gmail.

If this issue has bothered you, then I have a solution for you. This podcast covers the steps necessary to make Gmail your default email program for the big four browsers, Firefox, Chrome, IE, and Safari. Some solutions require additional software be installed. Links to those applications are provided in the posting on the website.

Firefox users have the easiest time. Just open Preferences for Mac Users, or Tools> Options for Windows users, then select the Applications tab from the top. In the search box, type mailto and change the selection to read “Use Gmail”. If you use more than one email program, then you can choose “Always ask”.

I would think Chrome would have been the easiest since it’s a Google product like Gmail, however at this time your best bet is to install an extension called Mail Checker Plus (http://bit.ly/bUs51I). Mail Checker Plus also has some nice features to let you preview messages, and indicate how many unread messages you have on the toolbar.

Mac Safari users are also required to install an additional piece of software called Google Notifier (http://bit.ly/bYxrC7). Once the software is installed, the trick is to go in to the preferences in the Mac Mail app (not Safari), and change the Default email reader option to Google Notifier. Sorry, I don’t yet have a way for Windows Safari users to do this trick.

Internet Explorer is probably the most complex solution to use Gmail as your default mail application. It’s actually a little more complex than I have time to cover here so I’m only going to mention that the best solution I’ve come across is a free third party application called Affixa Basic (http://bit.ly/cT8BIR).

I subscribe to the KISS, or Keep it Simple Stupid, philosophy. If there’s an easy way to do something, use that. Firefox is my choice if you like an easy way to click a link and open Gmail.

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