It looks like Google has finally pulled the plug on the old GMail UI. There’s no more “revert to the old look temporarily” button, so I guess they’re finally forcing us laggards onto the new theme. I’ve been a mostly happy GMail user since the very early days, but I strongly dislike the new UI.

As far as i can tell, this redesign is just change for the sake of change. I can’t see a single improvement! But I can spot three distinct un-provements *:

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One thing I don’t like at all about Silicon Valley culture is its monomaniacal focus on Hugeness: on the very biggest companies and websites.

Living in said valley, we get bombarded with news and gossip about what Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and a couple of others are doing (Yahoo and Microsoft, no longer considered “cool”, are slowly dropping off the list.) The tech press acts like the Internet is defined by the actions of these few companies. Whatever they’re doing, everybody else had better copy it, or risk irrelevance. You don’t matter unless you’ve got hundreds of millions of users and are raking in billions of dollars of advertising money.

(I imagine even Google and Facebook must feel the pressure to copy Google and Facebook! Why else do they keep trying so hard to break into each others’ markets?)

Part of Silicon Valley culture is the assumption that the destiny of every company or website is to become huge or to fail: those are the only two options. Global reach, with tens or hundreds of millions of users, is the only definition of success. Venture capitalists are known to base their gambles upon the idea that the profits from one one breakaway hit will pay for the losses from twenty flops. The breakaway hits are what they’re after; a modest but sustainably profitable company is not.

There are structural reasons for this attitude. The lack of barriers to competition on the web means no longer do you just have your neighbors to compete with. You have to compete with everyone in the world. That means that if company X offers something even 1% better than its competition, it can rapidly become a global near-monopoly. And so many web-based activities have network effects — sites like LinkedIn, eBay, etc. become more useful the more other people are using them, so success tends to snowball.

I feel this attitude misses something important. It misses what made the web so interesting in the first place. Think back to 1995 (if you’ve been on the internet that long). What was so exciting about the emerging medium? What was it that pulled you in for the first time?

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After I found out what Google Buzz was doing, I turned it off as quickly as possible.

…or did I?

As if there weren’t already enough layers in this cake of failure, apparently the link at the bottom of GMail that said “Turn off Buzz” does not actually turn off Buzz – it removes the Buzz cruft from the GMail interface, but it leaves you in the network.

So in an attempt to really and truly escape from Buzz, I went to my Google profile page, where I found a checkbox (checked by default!) saying “Display the list of people I’m following and people following me”:

I unchecked that. Then I went to my GMail account, clicked on Settings, and found the same option again. There was also a link that said “Disable Google Buzz”, which sounded pretty good, so I clicked that too:

So now I should be completely out of the woods, right? To double-check, I went and took a look at the public Google profile of Aza, one of my friends who was actively using Buzz. And there I saw a message that said “Aza is following you”:

Aza is following me? So is Buzz really turned off or not? I’m still not sure what’s going on here.

[Edited to add]: Apparently I needed to turn Buzz back on so that I could go in and click “block” on each follower, one by one, until the list was empty, and then turn it off again.

In a recent post, I wondered whether it’s possible to opt out of social networking given that your friends might be entering your email address into Facebook’s database without your knowledge.

Turns out this was timely, because less than a week after that post, Google released Buzz.

Google Buzz, as I’m sure you know by now, had a huge privacy flaw in it: it automatically, for all GMail users, created a social graph out of the user’s most-often-emailed people. And then it made that graph public on the user’s Google profile page.

Google’s defense was that that the graph only became public once you made your first Buzz post, and that there was a check box when making that post which would opt you out of sharing your graph. This defense is weaksauce! Here’s why.

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The site ReadWriteWeb recently did an article called Facebook wants to be your one true login. The contents of this article are something I’ll address in another post. What I want to talk about today has nothing to do with the actual contents of the article, and everything to do with the fact that this article was for some period of time one of the highest hits on Google for the search “Facebook login”.

The comments thread on the article filled up with over a thousand comments from confused and frustrated people asking “Now how do I log in?” and “The new design sucks!”.

That’s right. These people had been relying on a Google search for “Facebook login” to get to the Facebook login page. When they ended up at ReadWriteWeb instead, they didn’t know that they were in the wrong place. They thought that the Facebook login page had changed, and they weren’t happy about it. ReadWriteWeb has now put up a gigantic disclaimer on the article to explain that they are not Facebook and explain how to get there.

This whole chain of events seems destined to go down in Internet history as an amazing pile-up of failure.

Reactions seem divided into two camps. One camp is having a great laugh at the stupidity of the users – after all, how could they look at a page with a red masthead, titled “ReadWriteWeb”, featuring a news article, and think they were on the Facebook login page? How could they be smart enough to figure out how to leave a comment, but too dumb to know what site they were on?

The other camp, for example an article from blogger Funkatron called We’re the stupid ones is pointing the finger at the software world for assuming that everyone knows as much about computers as we do, and more specifically at Google – after all, isn’t this in some way Google’s screw-up for returning the wrong result?

Well, the name of this blog is “Not the User’s Fault”, so much as I would like to have a laugh at stupidity and then move on, I think it’s better to try to understand what this must have been like from those users’ point of view, and see if there’s anything we can learn from the whole boondoggle.

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Congratulations to Mozilla Messaging for finally finishing Thunderbird 3! In honor of last week’s Thunderbird 3.0 release, I’d like to do a series of blog posts on my experience migrating from GMail to Thunderbird over the past couple months.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of things about GMail. Treating the conversation, instead of the individual message, as the basic object was a big step forward in e-mail interfaces. Good, fast search plus vast disk space changed the way I think about my email archives.

However, this October I ran into some problems with GMail. I had set myself up both to receive email sent to my mozilla.com address in my GMail inbox and also to be able to send from my mozilla.com address through the GMail interface. Although it had the minor drawback of mixing my work and private lives together in a single extremely busy inbox, that seemed like a fair price for the increased convenience.

In October, though, I realized that some of my coworkers hadn’t been getting emails from me. It took me a while to notice: I thought everyone was just too busy to respond to what I had written. But by asking a few people to search their inboxes for mail from me, I confirmed a hunch – most of the mail I had sent from my mozilla.com address through the GMail interface over a period of a couple of weeks had not been delivered. It hadn’t gone to their spam folders, either – it had just silently disappeared.

Everything had been working fine up until October, so what happened? I’m still not exactly sure. One theory is that my Mozilla mail was being sent through gmail.com, but the “from” address said “mozilla.com”. A “from” address that doesn’t match the sending server is a common sign of spam, so maybe a change in spam-filtering policy made our relay servers start throwing out my messages. On the other hand, maybe it had to do with me changing my Mozilla LDAP password, and not remembering it to update the password stored in my GMail settings for the external account.

Either way, it was the worst kind of software failure: the silent kind! Because GMail’s interface reported that the messages had been sent, I never stopped to think that maybe they hadn’t. It’s easy to forget that email was never designed to be a highly reliable protocol. Sometimes you get bounce messages back when something goes wrong, but it’s never guaranteed.

So I don’t particularly blame GMail for what happened. It would have been nice to get more notification, but the problem was really outside of their knowledge or control; I was expecting too much from a web application. It is in the nature of a web application that the user gives up a certain amount of control in exchange for convenience. Often a good trade. But for something as personal and essential as my email? My experience with the lost messages drove home the price of not having that control.

Besides, it was about time I started eating Mozilla’s own dogfood for my email.

I’ve been keeping a notes file on my transition to Thunderbird. In my next few posts I want to share with you some of its pros and cons, tips for using it effectively, things that are cool about its interface and things that could use improvement.

Google has just launched Extensions for the Chrome browser. It will be interesting to watch whether their approach to add-ons differs from ours, and in what ways.

The vibrant community of Firefox add-on developers has long been one of our greatest strengths, so Google’s addition of this feature is something of a challenge. I for one welcome the increased competition. It’s going to make us at Mozilla work harder to stay ahead, but the end result can only be good for users — more choices and higher quality software.

The Chrome extensions apparently don’t work on Mac yet, which is too bad; the Google Translate extension looks pretty useful.